Humanizing city technologies
My research investigates how digital technologies shape urban life, with a focus on the human-scale practices, values, and even feelings associated with new apps, data, and APIs. In other words, my work seeks to personalize technology. As more and more of urban life becomes mediated by code, urban planning urgently needs a research agenda that doesn’t just react to tech as an external force for good or evil, but instead sees the human and technological as always made in and through one another. I study technology with a grounding in the established terrain of urban planners: attention to the enduring influence of infrastructures, struggles with the messy politics of living well together, and a collective orientation towards a better future.
My dissertation is titled “Personal Digital Urbanism: The Promise and the Mess of New Mobility Technologies.” It’s a qualitative study of new mobility platforms—apps for rides, shared bikes, trip planning, and all the data and infrastructure behind them—from the perspectives of both transportation planners and travelers. The project is guided by a concern for two values that I argue are essential for collective life together in the city: autonomy and publicness. Basically, I’m interested in how, at the individual level, these digital tools interact with the ways we reflect on our own desires and act according to them, and how, at a collective level, these sociotechnical systems reflect or produce certain visions of how we ought to get along together as a public. I was initially motivated by a concern that digitized mobility was controlling urban behaviors and foreclosing political possibilities, but I’ve found it’s much more complicated, and more interesting, than that.
Behind the trips and clicks
Understanding urban technology for mobility requires learning not just where people go, what they click, or what they build, but why they do what they do. I use qualitative methods to study the planning, development, and use of apps for ride-hailing (e.g., Uber, Lyft); shared bike and scooter rentals (Lime, Jump); and trip-planning (Google Maps, One Bus Away). A qualitative, constructivist approach allows me to study data, analytics, and software as sites for the practices of expression, desire, exclusion, or control that are inherent to urbanism.
To study the traveler experience of new mobility, I conducted a series of interviews and focus groups with residents of senior living communities and with young tech workers. The visions and values of new mobility emerged in interviews with software developers, mobility operations managers, and transportation planners, as well as in attendance at industry conferences. I have also studied the development of several data specifications that form the technical infrastructure of mobility platforms (e.g., GTFS, GBFS, and MDS). Much of my empirical work focuses on observations in the Seattle area, but grounded in their broader North American context.
I draw on several strands of thought that can illuminate the political, urban, and technological dimensions of my work. These include democratic theories of agonism and collective urban politics, feminist theories of autonomy, affect theory, philosophies of technology and human agency, and more recent critical interrogations of the power of digital technologies. I tend to avoid structural critiques articulated primarily through a political-economy lens, but do find them occasionally productive. The intellectual potential of an exchange between the disciplines of urban studies and science & technology studies is especially exciting to me. Along those lines, I am inspired by emerging interdisciplinary work from geography, urban studies, and media studies in “platform urbanism,” and consider my work to be a contribution to this subfield.
Planning, with technology
My research finds evidence of autonomy and publicness in places they might easily be overlooked—in everyday travel activities like checking traffic on Google Maps, hailing an Uber, or ending a bike-share trip, as well as in organizational practices of mobility data analysis, software development, and service regulation. These findings can help guide the co-development of cities and digital technologies as their paths become further enmeshed. As I see it, the task for cities today is not to plan for some expected technological impacts, nor to plan by implementing technologies indiscriminately. Instead, cities must become more equitable, more democratic, and more sustainable by planning with, through, and alongside technology.
These papers have come from my research:
- Autonomous people: Identity, agency, and automated driving. Journal of Urban Technology (2021).
- Participatory infrastructures: The politics of mobility platforms. Urban Planning (2020).
I also presented a related paper at the 2021 ACSP conference: