Urban informatics and new opportunities for interdisciplinary exchange

As an internet researcher and social media consultant, I ask some of the guests of the Australian Science magazine and knowledge network to tell me and my readers more about themselves, their current projects, and their views on topics including internet technology, the use of the Web in science and education, and certain aspects of the digital technologies that influence our everyday lives and work. You can see the published interviews so far - here.   Earlier this month I had a conversation with Marcus Foth, the interview is published for Australian Science.

Marcus Foth is an Associate Professor and Director of the Urban Informatics Research Lab, as well as the Principal Research Fellow at the School of Design, Queensland University of Technology. He has authored and co-authored over 90 articles published in journals, edited books, and conference proceedings, as well as the Urban Informatics web site. You can follow him on Twitter.

Welcome to Australian Science. Would you, please, tell our readers a little bit more about yourself? Where do you come from, both geographically and philosophically? What is your scientific background, and your professional scope? 

Certainly. I was born and grew up in the Northern part of Germany, in a town called Lübeck, at the coast of the Baltic Sea, about an hour from Hamburg. After high school I moved what appears to be as far away diagonally as possible within Germany in order to commence a computer science degree at the University of Furtwangen in the Black Forest that offered a – at the time – unique specialisation: Medieninformatik which combined technology applications and media studies. This was in 1997. The internet was just starting to become commercially successful, and many current students were still working on kiosk installations and multimedia CD-ROMs which were the latest fad at the time.

This degree program included two industry internships as well as an opportunity to study abroad. Together with friends of mine we looked at a number of options and eventually applied for advanced standing into the Bachelor of Multimedia program at Griffith University in Brisbane where we continued our studies in 2000. Due to the credit transfer, we were able to graduate at the end of 2000. This was my first year in Australia, and I had an amazing time. So much so that I decided to take advantage of a Government initiative that made it easier for recent IT graduates to apply for permanent residency. I was also lucky that my application was processed very rapidly: I applied in March 2001 and returned to Brisbane in July 2001 on my PR visa.

I had finished all my coursework for the German CompSc degree, and all that was left to do was the graduation thesis. In the meantime, I enrolled into a Master of Arts in Digital Media program at Queensland University of Technology which was flexible enough to comprise project units that allowed me to write my thesis “Backing up the Smart State: E-Security in Queensland’s Small and Medium Enterprises.” This way I was able to graduate in 2002 with the CompSc Honours degree from Germany and an MA from QUT at the same time with only one extra year of studies.

QUT offered a great and dynamic environment. I was not part of the Faculty of IT, but the newly formed Creative Industries Faculty. So I was surrounded by colleagues from very different disciplinary backgrounds such as, anthropology, cultural studies, media and communications, visual arts, film and TV, music, communication design, etc. It was a stimulating environment to be part of, and I happily accepted the faculty’s generous offer to fund a scholarship to enable me to do my PhD with them.

This journey spanned already two very broad areas: technology (the computer science and multimedia parts) and people (the media and communication and creative arts parts). During my PhD studies I added a third area of great interest to me, that is, place. At a time when the internet was heralded as the death of distance, and policy makers and commercial entities were promoting telework, e-commerce, and distant education, I went quite the opposite way by suggesting that ‘place still matters’. My PhD thesis “Towards a Design Methodology to Support Social Networks of Residents in Inner-City Apartment Buildings” looked at the way that web-enabled technologies could be useful for local communication and interaction within community networks.

My PhD studies formed the headstone for the next couple of years: Right after graduating I was part of a great team of academics across media and communication studies, urban sociology, and architecture that won a three year Discovery grant from the

Australian Research Council including an Australian Postdoctoral Fellowship that supported my research between 2006 and 2008. We were successful with an additional two ARC Linkage grants the following year, and I spent some time at the Oxford Internet Institute as a Visiting Fellow in 2007. So these successes tremendously helped to build up momentum around what I eventually started to call urban informatics. However, this term is not my invention, it just seemed the most appropriate one.

Would you explain to our readers a bit about the Urban Informatics Research Lab, for those in the science and technology who may not be familiar with the Lab? Can you give us a story about the inception, history, work and achievements of the Urban Informatics Research Lab?

The Urban Informatics Research Lab was initially just a small but growing group of research staff and students working on a number of related grants funded by the ARC and partner organisations. This was back in 2006, and for a while we flew under the radar of the university’s administration winning research grants and squirrelling research papers.

The lab operates across the three domains that I mentioned earlier: people, place and technology, and so we house post-docs and research students from a variety of backgrounds: humanities and social science; urban planning, design and architecture; and human-computer interaction, information technology and computer science. What binds us all together is the shared focus on the nexus of all three areas. We came up with this definition of Urban Informatics that we are proud to say, was published in the CSCW 2011 proceedings on page 1. The fact that the paper appears on page 1 is actually arbitrary, but I still like to point it out ;-)

Urban informatics is the study, design, and practice of urban experiences across different urban contexts that are created by new opportunities of real-time, ubiquitous technology and the augmentation that mediates the physical and digital layers of people networks and urban infrastructures. (Foth, Choi, & Satchell, 2011).

A main driver of our work is the motivation to deliver not just rigorous research but also real world impact. We first started off with a study that significantly shaped the social sustainability strategies of the Kelvin Grove Urban Village, the Queensland Government’s flagship urban renewal project in inner-city Brisbane. The lab has also produced a number of technology innovations, such as CityFlocks – an early mobile location-based recommender system, DispoMaps – an iPhone app to temporarily share a map with your location details with others and then dispose of it safely, FixVegas – a mobile app that lets you take a photo of city assets and street furniture that require repair and submit a maintenance request to the local council, CapitalMusic – a mobile app to visually share what music you are currently listening to with people in your vicinity, and Discussions in Space – a hybrid mobile phone and public screen application that allows passersby to contribute content via SMS or tweets.

Can you share with us some personal notes regarding the Urban Informatics Research Lab, any challenges you faced along the way, and the outcome?

In the beginning our lab heavily depended on income from national competitive grants and we were lucky that the time was right for the research that we applied for. We still compete for national competitive grants, but we are also increasingly talking directly with partner organisations from the public and private sector about new research opportunities.

At the moment, we have research programs looking at urban planning and community engagement; environmenal sustainability and energy monitoring; food culture and the food interactions in the city; libraries as new hubs for digital culture and social innovation; and there are a number of applications in the pipeline and on the boil that may add new initiatives to the lab later this year and early next year.

Recently, the Urban Informatics Research Lab won the merit award in the R&D category at the iAwards QLD 2012 . Congratulations on the award! Can you describe the R&D project in particular? 

Thank you. Yes, the iAward was for Discussions in Space. We used it as a community engagement tool originally for a project with Brisbane City Council, but it has now been used successfully in a variety of other contexts, too, such as at Federation Square in Melbourne. In collaboration with FedSquare, Discussions in Space is used to engage with visitors during events such as Oprah’s visit, New Years Eve, Cadel Evans’ Tour de France victory parade, the Queen’s Royal Visit, and Thoughts for Molly Meldrum.

We are very pleased that Dr Ronald Schroeter’s excellent work on Discussions in Space has been recognised as the 2012 iAwards National Merit Recipient in the research and development category, and he will represent Australia competing at the Asia-Pacific ICT Awards in Brunei in December.

Are there any existing tools and methodologies developed by either you or your team in the Lab? If they are open source/free, it would be a bonus if we could link them and encourage people to visit, download, or try them out.

We make as many of our research outputs as possible available to the public for free. The QUT ePrints repository contains full-text versions of most of our papers where the publisher enables us to do so. And we have developed a number of mobile phone applications. I encourage your readers in Brisbane to try the new version of FixVegas (v2) which we will release shortly on the iTunes app store. And of course, we always welcome feedback: feedback@urbaninformatics.net

Do you collaborate with similar institutes worldwide that cover and conduct research in urban informatics?

Yes we do maintain professional links and collaborations with colleagues internationally, such as the MIT Senseable City Lab led by Prof. Carlo Ratti, or the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at The Bartlett, UCL in London. Many colleagues have contributed chapters to the Urban Informatics (IGI, 2009) and the Social Butterfly (MIT Press, 2011) books. Deputy Director Dr Jaz Choi, Prof. Greg Hearn and I are working on a new volume on human-food interactions that is due to be released by MIT Press next year. We are also fortunate to be working with colleagues at the University of Lincoln in the UK on an ARC Linkage grant on the same topic of food in the city. There are many more collaborators, some of which are named on our website.

We would love to hear your thoughts and I wonder if you would be brave enough to make some predictions as to new and emerging platforms, technologies and ways which will enable people to supercharge their research and learning capabilities, in the next year or within 5 years from now?

It is always a thin ice journey to pretend to be a clairvoyant and predict the future. However, an noteworthy trend seems to be around new engagement spaces. One of our PhD students, Mark Bilandzic, is currently researching The Edge, the Queensland Government’s new digital culture centre at the State Library of Queensland. Mark refers to The Edge as a free-choice learning environment. Similarly how a zoo stimulates learning about flora and fauna, a planetarium about astronomy, and perhaps the Great Barrier Reef about marine biology, The Edge offers a free choice learning environment for young people to experiment with new technologies, new creative practices and sometimes even entrepreneurial activities. I think that in addition to the traditional, formal educational modes (primary, secondary and tertiary), we are witnessing a complementary stream of experiential learning where different groups of people come together from quite diverse backgrounds. We are very excited to be part of this exploration, and there are some preliminary insights that seem to suggest that certain learnings are indeed “supercharged” by this new environment.

In addition to the physical surroundings that can nurture and stimulate learning, I think there is also great potential in human-brain interaction and neuroscience. I co-supervised an Honours student, Mark Jones, whose goal it was to use next generation EEG devices in order to identify ‘flow’ in game play. Flow is the state a player is in when the balance between challenge and skill is just right. Too much challenge and too little skill and the player could get frustrated, too little challenge and too much skill and the player could get bored. The sweet spot, the ‘flow tunnel’ is in between those two ends of the spectrum. If we can measure people’s state of flow in real-time, then learning support applications could take advantage of this contextual information in order to tailor learning experiences to the current needs of the user. In game play we would not be asked to set a certain difficulty level at the beginning of a game anymore (easy, medium, hard), but the game would automatically adjust its level of difficulty with a view to deliver an optimal game engagement.

How do social networks figure into your work and research (if they do)? Do you find all this online activity on daily basis to be technologically positive (or even a necessity) in what you do? Or do you perceive online social networking as distracting and influencing negatively on our lives? Are you a techno optimist or pessimist?

I think social media is here to stay (at least for a while). I’m mostly a techno-optimist, but I’m not a technological determinist. With regards to social media, it has bugged me that in the beginning, and sometimes even still today, it’s been ridiculed by some outside academia and the nerd/geek community. Social media these days are more than just for the soy latte sipping Melbourne laneway flaneur – as one of our post-docs put it eloquently. We even went as far as compiling an edited book that brings together evidence how social media is used for civic engagement, political activism, environmental sustainability, creative practices, disaster recovery, and so forth. I am biased but I do recommend it highly:

From Social Butterfly to Engaged Citizen: Urban Informatics, Social Media, Ubiquitous Computing, and Mobile Technology to Support Citizen Engagement (MIT Press, 2011)

Finally, what are you currently working on?  What can we expect from the Lab in the upcoming period?

I won’t talk about research that has not been confirmed or fully funded, but we may or may not be engaged in a project about blood, in a project about the impact of the carbon tax on low income households, in a project about large screen urban data visualisations, and in a project about digitally augmented car windscreens. But if I told you the details, I’d have to kill you – virtually ;-)

If your readers are interested in these topics, please “like” our facebook page where we announce seminars and talks.

I’m @sunday9pm on Twitter, another great way to stay in touch. And I’m confirmed to be speaking at two events:

The NSW.net Technology in Libraries Seminar on 21 Sep 2012 in Sydney, and a keynote talk at NLS6 in Feb 2013 in Brisbane.

Thank you Marcus for taking your time to talk with me. Thank you for the Interview!

It was my pleasure, thank you for inviting me. 

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