People with mobiles make city heart beat

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AMONG all the acronyms that dominate our lives, here’s a sweet one: GLAM.

It stands for Galleries, Libraries and Museums, and after reading the academic paper in which I found it, I have to say, Newcastle has GLAM in all the right places.

The paper itself was by associate professor Dr Marcus Foth, a research fellow at the Queensland University of Technology. His sponsors report that he’s one of the world’s top 25 ‘‘leading thinkers and innovators in the field of urban planning and technology’’.

Said sponsors, the Australian Business Foundation and the Aurora Foundation, note that in the past six years he’s attracted more than $2million in national competitive grants and industry funding. Translation: this guy has got street cred. People pay him to do what he does.

What he does is ‘‘urban informatics’’, and you can sample it free by searching for his work at

It’s a field that blends town planning with mobile phones, the internet and, through them, various ways of involving everybody in ‘‘citizen geography’’ and any number of other ‘‘citizen’’ areas that used to be the exclusive preserve of people who had years of qualifications.

Don’t get me wrong, Dr Foth’s paper is no hymn to the common man as a replacement for the expert. It’s more about the ways we’re all unconsciously using technology to build our cities into places that react to us as naturally as our bodies do. The city is the skeleton and the veins, people are the nerves and the blood supply.

His argument is that we can do this sort of building consciously as well as unconsciously, designing spaces so that we’re obliged to deal with each other as people, not as annoyances who pinch our parking spaces and disagree with us about fig trees and railways. We can each gather information and all innovate with it.

Previously humans have done this with another of those nifty acronyms, STEM: science, technology, engineering and maths. But now technology can blend with culture and we’re all budding on that stem, just like the taxi-drivers of Accra.

Those guys got busy when researchers attached air sensors and GPS locators to Accra’s taxis. It was a project to find out where the urban air was most polluted and how levels changed daily. The drivers weren’t given any training in reading the results, they just had to come back to a central drop-off point each day to deliver the data collectors. But some curious drivers worked out their results, and because they casually encountered each other at the drop-off point, the knowledge spread.

All the drivers started choosing new routes that avoided pollution. They passed on information to friends and family, warned each other about concentrations and kept a greater distance from cars when walking.

They began fixing their cabs and their own cars to reduce unwanted gases and angrily urged local authorities to do more to clean the air. ‘‘Citizen science’’ in action.

So, how does such grassroots activity bring us to GLAM? Well, Foth used knowledge of what happened with that unplanned drop-off space to set up some planned spaces in Brisbane.

One move was to erect huge interactive public screens with a question about Brisbane City Council plans. Passing people discuss them by posting comments from their mobiles, stranger bouncing ideas off stranger.

(A new role for the screen in Wheeler Place? Imagine council staff idly glancing out their windows to get an instant sample of public opinion.)

Another Foth project was to create a centre at the State Library where young people could use free net access, public computers, an auditorium and casual meeting spaces to work on their own projects or dip into someone else’s. Known as The Edge, it has library staff who introduce newcomers and generally help keep information flowing.

Other such public knowledge centres – galleries and museums – can be used similarly. Newcastle is particularly lucky because earlier generations have given us the basis for such blending sitting side by side, library and art gallery. There are two big public spaces nearby, the museum is close and we’ve a steady supply of people who can drop in, both workers and students.

If this all sounds a bit too fuzzy and visionary, here’s a hard fact picked from Dr Foth’s paper: a study assessing the economic effect of the British Library found that each year it generated about 4.4 times the level of its public funding. For every pound the taxpayer gave, it earned £4.40.

Now that’s glam.

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