This is one of several posts about the first CityCamp London [see CityCamp London, Prelude, Participate]. I am writing about my views and thoughts about the event rather than reporting the fine details of the event. The (official) CityCamp London site gives more detail about the speakers and the presentations, and has links to other blog posts about and video of it.
I had been a little concerned that I would feel like an alien amongst a crowd of London people at CityCamp London. A few people had already questioned why someone who lives in the North East of England would want to go to an event about London (I will explain later). I was just thinking that I would wander around and take a few photographs of architecture to calm my nerves when I spotted someone I could identify instantly: Ingrid Koehler.
The second person I saw as we approached the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, manufactures and commerce) main building was Paul Clarke who promptly insisted on sharing his camera lenses with me during the afternoon. It was very kind of him, and turned what was already an interesting afternoon into a decidedly special treat for me. My own lenses would never have coped with the low levels of lighting, so all my photographs inside the RSA on Friday afternoon are courtesy of Paul Clarke’s generosity in sharing his lovely lenses. Do have a look at his photographs of the event.London is so large and busy that, years ago, I rarely used to see colleagues just a street or two away from where our offices were, although we were coming and going within the same hours. It remains surprising to see anyone in the street whom I recognise. It was a good reminder that although London is huge, it is not just a seething, random (sometimes smelly) mass of humanity, but full of people who can and do connect with each and are the beating heart of the city.
The audience was interestingly varied, even just assessing by visual clues, with a wide age range. Some serious suits were sat amongst us. I heard someone else comment that it was “not just the usual crowd.” I suspect that that was definitely A Good Thing. It can be much more stimulating when the mix of people is different.
There was an air of anticipation, audibly evident in the tone of conversation as people found seats and waited for the talks to start. A slight sense of edginess pervaded as people were uncertain about who all the other people were and exactly what would happen during the afternoon.
We were in the Great Room, decorated with a set of paintings entitled The Progress of Human Knowledge and Culture by James Barry (born 1741, died 1806). This seemed very appropriate to the theme of using technology to improve London in the future. The Great Room had been the venue for the very first UK public exhibition in 1852 to 1853 of the artefacts created by a new, culture-changing technology: photography.
People taking photographs and video are a key feature of events that focus on web and mobile technologies. It seems almost spontaneous and I have thought about why it has become such a part of events. I think that it probably started as the bloggers wanting a photograph to illustrate their post about the event. For me, it is about recording events because I think that we are at the beginning of the age of web and mobile technologies and I want to leave some kind of record for future historians that will help them to imagine what it was like to be here at the start of it.The present and the future were the focus of the afternoon.
I was delighted to see that Leo Boland, Chief Executive of the GLA (Greater London Authority) was a keynote speaker. It was very good to hear someone at that senior level being so positive about technology. Leo Boland is even on Twitter.
We need the senior managers, leaders, decision-makers, policy-makers in the public sector to understand what technology can do. The situation is improving. Ten years ago, it was not uncommon for senior managers to know little about how to write and send an e-mail, let alone browse the Web (they had staff to do it for them). It is more likely that they can use e-mail now and even access websites by themsleves, but many clearly still lack sufficient understanding of key concepts.
The senior managers do not need to know how to create an accessible website from scratch. They do need a broad understanding of what accessibility means in a Web context. They do need to know how a well-designed website can increase accessibility to public services, and that technology can help to deliver more effective services at a lower cost. They also need to understand that the whole world can see our public sector websites, and could be judging our country by them. London is one of the most famous cities in the world, so it especially needs to show a technologically-adept face to the world for all of the UK’s sake.
Having speakers from elsewhere in the world helped to remind us of London’s international context. It is easy to forget when tackling getting from A to B in the city, frustrated and irritated by traffic jams and packed Tube trains, that this is one of the really dynamic and exciting metropolitan environments in the world. The diversity of cultures that come together in London, from Roman times to present, help to generate creativity and new ideas alongside the financial powerhouses of the City.
One of the slides I enjoyed during the afternoon showed the entire history of Earth since the Big Bang in one image. I hope that nobody minds if I show my photograph of this artwork.
This image was one that stayed in my mind afterwards. It is, of course, ridiculous even to try to reduce the entire history of Earth into one image. How useful it is for conveying information about the history of Earth since the Big Bang is an interesting question. I liked this image and especially in the context in which it was shown. I think that it is intended to provoke admiration amongst those who have ever tried to show information graphically (even as a simple pie chart). The image does show more clearly than any quantity of words how little time has elapsed since human technology started. Even cities are a very recent invention. When people are impatient about digital things not working, perhaps sometimes, just occasionally, they could take a deep breath and remember that time is relative, and we are still inventing this technology, let alone getting as far as refining it. I am tempted to give a flint tools analogy – but shall resist.
We certainly are still working out the practicalities of city living. I was interested in a point that was made about barriers in cities sometimes being seen as desirable to keep the ‘bad’ people away from the ‘good’ people. Personally, I am not keen on gated communities. I understand why people within such areas want to feel safe but think creating physical barriers simply reinforces the Us-versus-Them hostility without solving the underlying problems. However, I was possibly brainwashed as a child by the pop songs about peace and love and humankind living happily together in one big, really chilled commune.Technology undoubtedly already helps our cities to function, and could do more. Transport is an obvious industry. So many times, I have wished I could find more information about buses, such as where to find them, when the next ones are due. Real-time informatiuon about trains and roads would be useful to most people. Knowing that the delayed train is still 200 miles away, has a problem with its engine or brakes and is blocking the line could enable a substantial number of delayed passengers to find alternative routes by other trains. The rest know that they can get off the cold, crowded platform and get a hot meal whilst they wait and remain calmer.
The sight of people queueing in sub-zero temperatures outside St Pancras Station during the Christmas holidays when bad weather was causing transport problems reminded me of this. If people could have had an electronic equivalent to a place in the queue and an alert sent to their mobile, they could have gone off to wait in more comfortable places.
One of the people attending CityCamp London was Richard Cudlip, a co-founder of TweetALondonCab, London cabbies who are using technology to provide a “virtual taxi rank.” It can be strangely difficult to get a licensed hackney cab in London, especially if one is rather lost and running late or the rain is pouring down. At the same time, there could be cabs waiting at a nearby taxi rank with no sign of potential passengers. And yes, I have used TweetALondonCab when in London; and am always especially delighted when the cabbie who turns up is Richard Cudlip or Lee Cox (@Jackcabanory) because I chat regularly with them on Twitter.
Transport is only one aspect of city life where good use of technology, particularly real-time information, can help everyone. Cities are, of course, hubs for commerce and yet few retailers seem to be able to use technology as effectively as they could. Why cannot we find which restaurants within walking distance still have any tables available and serve food suitable for someone allergic to gluten? Would our cities be better if people knew that one store had a queue for the pay desk spilling out into the street but no queue at a branch three streets away?
Several aspects of big cities have always interested me: psychological, aesthetic and historical. Professionally, I have been involved with matters concerning the history, archaeology, architecture, designed spaces and art of British cities. Personally, I am interested in, and sometimes very concerned by, the psychological aspects of cities (higher levels of anxiety, stress and aggression in crowded city locations. Obviously, having access to maps and other information as one walks through the streets can reduce dramatically the anxiety about possibly getting lost or not being able to find a place.
I have already seen how the Social Web seems to help people cope with the peculiar conditions of big cities in which one can be surrounded by people but be alone. People share their frustrations and fears about being in the city spaces. It is not unusual for those on Twitter to keep company in virtual form with someone who is feeling a bit anxious about being out in the city on their own at night. It is also clear that a lot of people use devices to connect to the Web to reduce boredom and irritation as well as anxiety. This is something that could develop further in the future. Imagine all the passengers on the Tube being in a truly chilled state, coping calmly with having to wait 5 more minutes for another train.
Nearly 10 years ago, I really wanted to be able to make some historical photographs of city streets available in a form that enabled people just to look at their phone (or other Web-connected portable device that used GPS) and see what was there in the past. It not only has the potential to enrich people’s experience of a city but might start to affect how it looks in the future as people who use the urban environment see the visual differences between past and present. Now it is also possible to do it.
I can see the huge potential in information and communications technology helping cities to be better environments for us all. CityCamp London day 1 ended with two teenagers talking about technology and the city from the viewpoint of being elected representatives of their generation in London. They were impressive young men: bright, confident, humorous and keen to make a difference.
At the end of the first day of CityCamp London, there was an excited buzz. I left with the impression that most people were stimulated by hearing how others were thinking creatively as well as enthusiastically about how technology could help to make the urban world a better place.
Apologies to people to whom I just waved and smiled from a distance, including Robert Brook and Mark O’Neill. I was trying to avoid giving people the cold that had developed as I had travelled down to London that morning.
RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, manufactures and commerce) <http://www.thersa.org/ last accessed 19/10/2010>
Panoramic view by Will Pearson of The Progress of Human Knowledge and Culture by James Barry in the Great Room at the RSA <http://www.willpearson.co.uk/virtual_tours/james_barry/ last accessed 19/10/2010>