Week 4 – Code/Space (Miriam Harvey)

Kitchin and Dodge (2011:20) describe their book Code/Space as being “about the relationship of software, space, and society”. The case study I chose this week (from http://www.scoop.it/t/the-programmable-city) is an article in Wired magazine about smart cars needing smart streets (Luke Dormehl, 2016) to communicate with and respond to each other to help their users. It is an example of code/space because Dormehl demonstrates in his article the relationship between cars, city and users.

Dormehl quotes Anthony Townsend to explain why traffic management is a problem that needs solving. Townsend describes the street as “a very complicated version of musical chairs”; a “scarce, expensive piece of land and resource” where “the more you co-ordinate it, the more benefits you can get.” He continues by pointing out that “30 per cent of traffic in cities is caused by people driving around looking for parking”.

The solution to this problem might be coming from a winning entry to a Smart City Challenge organised by the US Department of Transport, implemented by Alphabet-owned Sidewalk Labs. It involves “the use of camera-equipped vehicles […]  to count the number of available parking spaces in the city, as well as reading relevant parking signs [aggregated] with data from Google Maps [to] help direct drivers to empty spaces”. In this vision of the future, the code will be doing their “double duty” (Kitchin and Dodge, 2011:26) communicating in a machine-to-machine language between car and city, as well as in “an understandable notation for humans” such as a sat-nav image or an audio message in English to let the human car user know where to park their car.

Continuing on the theme of car/city communications, Dormehl refers to a recent data-sharing agreement between traffic app Waze and the city of Boston. The data that the city wanted from Waze is collected by the Waze app on car users’ mobile phones. This data is quietly collected through software that runs code to instruct the phone to collect GPS coordinates, calculate the speed and distance travelled, and capture use feedback. Kitchin and Dodge (2011:4) note that “although code in general is hidden, invisible inside the machine, it produces visible and tangible effect in the world”.

The ‘visible and tangible effects’ for Waze users is information that enables them to avoid traffic problems. The agreement between Waze and the city enhanced this service. Dormehl reports that “[i]n exchange for advance notice from city authorities about planned road closures, Waze agreed to share data gathered from its users with Boston’s traffic management centre”. The data collected from Waze users’ phones now had a wider, more long-term benefit as “this data exchange will help Boston to fine-tune its traffic light timings and urban planning.”

These two examples illustrate the point made by Kitchin and Dodge (2011:42) about the technicity of code where “software acts autonomously, and at various points in the process is able to automatically process inputs and to react accordingly”. However, they note that “technicity of code is not deterministic […] Rather, technicity is contingent, negotiated, and nuanced; realized through its practice by people in relation to historical and geographical context.” The software in smart cars and smart cities needs the human users to give it purpose. As illustrated in this artist’s impression from the 1950s of a future world with self-driving cars, the car journey is determined by humans while the car and the road work together to execute their pre-coded instructions.

1950s depiction of driverless cars

“A 1950s illustration depicting a utopian world of driverless cars. Photograph: GraphicaArtis/Getty Images”
Source: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/oct/03/collision-course-pedestrian-deaths-rising-driverless-cars

The case study shows that there are new relationships emerging between public streets and the people, cars, technology services and city planners. Berry et al (2013:1) note a tension around the ownership of public spaces, stating that it “is almost by defini-tion contested, or at least negotiated, space in that no one person or company can unequivocally own and control it.” Maybe the notion of ‘pubic’ and ‘private’ should be reconsidered, as a smart city requires interdependence, and data to be collected, shared and used in a way that blurs the old boundaries between public and private.



Berry, C., Harbord, J. & Moore, R.O., 2013. Public space, media space, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Dormehl, L. (2016). ‘The road to tomorrow: streets need to be as smart as the cars driving on them’. Wired. 7 November. Available from: https://www.wired.co.uk/article/smart-cars-need-smart-streets

Kitchin, R. & Dodge, M., (2011). Code/space software and everyday life, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press


2 thoughts on “Week 4 – Code/Space (Miriam Harvey)

  1. Hi Miriam,
    The question for Berry remained is the city public space’s characteristics, “First, there is the question of media and the characteristics of urban pub¬lic space.” (Berry et al., 2013, p.8). The connection between urban public space and electronics has become tenuous recently. In the past, traffic signs or billboards were usually related to the place they are located or the locals. Meanwhile nowadays, the barriers between specific sites and urban public space has been crossed out thanks to the media and wireless technology. For instance, mobile phones enable people to have full access to urban public space. This small gadget can even be connected with cameras or other networked media to keep citizens under surveillance in both public and private spaces. There is also an adjustment in traffic signs or billboards in order to make them ally with traffic changes and advertisements.

    Berry, C., Harbord, J. & Moore, R.O., 2013. Public space, media space, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

  2. Hi Miriam

    What a great case study. As we know from the reading, code and space are interlinked as one affects how we experience the other. Didn’t cross my mind that it applies to the space in and around cars & traffic but for many people this is how they spend hours of their lives. Interesting!

    I like how the aggregation of data is changing how we drive and how cities design roads and parking spaces. I feel that there is a lot to be said here for the benefits to the environment: less traffic, less pollution!

    I wondered, in your research, did you come across anything investigating apps/technology similar to this that aims to reduce the likelihood of crashes? From what I’ve seen (advertising, news articles) its a big focus of tech companies looking to revolutionise driving.

    Would love to hear your thoughts

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