Digital Cities: A Digitally Social Overture

This is the tenth, and final, post in a series of excerpts from my graduate research at Cornell University; each has been adapted for the purposes of this format. To read the full report, in all its technical glory, please visit my website.

Previous Topic: The City as a Platform

Times Square NYC — where the locals don’t go

Throughout this analysis I’ve established an admittedly utopian framework to move today’s cities toward the digital city of tomorrow. The shift to this urban renaissance is littered with countless roadblocks — many we’ve touched on — however, we need to address the elephant in the room.

Much like the fragmentation of our digital identities, so too is our experience of our physical and digital worlds. As our ability to seamlessly connect with anyone, anywhere, has increased, our desire to reconnect with our immediate community has degraded. Not your close family or friends, but the shop owner down the block, or your building neighbors whom you’ve lived next to for 5 years and still don’t know their name.

Empowering a Digital Perspective

Known as the social network gap this phenomena has manifested itself in multiple ways throughout history — rich vs. poor, inner city vs. suburb, North vs. South, etc. It’s a byproduct of technology burrowing deeper into our daily lives, slowly siloing our society into groupthink and partisan dichotomies; therefore, urban technologists must consider how we can use technology to encourage community interaction in the third space to offset this social exhaust.

…technology may continue to silo our society into groupthink and partisan dichotomies…

Two key concepts proposed by John Carroll’s team at Penn State may unlock an ability to transform this exhaust into the network backbone of the urban social network:

  • Hyperlocality — rich and reciprocal interactions within familiar communities
  • Suprathresholding — amplification of weak, and often dispersed, signals of our digital experience into a communal view

Combined with the knowledge of a citizen’s active prints, disclosed metadata, and passive tracks, device location listening, the network could theoretically construct a social heartbeat of an urban landscape — including the connecting ties between networks.

Communitysourcing = Users + Microtasks

Once a urban network experiences a cluster density the platform could invite city government, local community advocates, and event organizers to have direct interaction with a populace in a fluid and engaging manner. One potential use-case is that of communitysourcing — an action that combines a user’s digital identity and localized knowledge to conduct short microtasks.

Example: Geofencing with Passive Prints

Remember the Artober festival in Nashville we touched on? Imagine a crowded weekend of festivities, where citizens are out in the city experiencing exhibits sponsored by the city, festival organizers, and the featured artists themselves. By deploying a geo-fence around an exhibit a connected citizen could be prompted to give venue feedback upon their departure from the experience (data supplied by passive tracks).

via LocationSmart

Here’s where you say, “Brian that’s super creepy.” I know, I thought so too at first, but then I read the research. It turns out a prompt for response on an experience within (or directly outside of) the bounds of an event transitions the cognitive load from agitation to a motivation of contribution. Put simply, if I ask you about your experience as you depart you’ll actually welcome the opportunity to give feedback. Actually, you’ll more than welcome the chance — you’ll seek out the ability to continue contributing your opinion and provide high quality feedback along the way.

Integrating Active Prints

By sourcing our knowledge of how information disseminates through social networks we can further design the feedback system to increase the call-and-response microtask functionality. Consider a different type of communitysourcing, one which uses the disclosed active prints of users (i.e. a digital image) to collect and present a shared social view of exhibit experiences at the Artober festival. The functionality accomplishes two primary objectives:

  1. Drives users on the network to investigate the experience themselves, increasing nodal traffic, and validate the exhibit’s relevance
  2. Presents the platform with the opportunity to predict and gauge audience response to an experience based on node density and supplied feedback from active users

Further, we can measure engagement at the exhibition broadly to determine the maximum capacity of the experience (productive utility) personalized to users operating within the event’s proximity. In this way we can source relevant community stories that match their digital identity (collaborative filtering) to maximize their own individual experiences of the community.

Everyone is a Local

By extending the platform’s scope beyond a defined urban network we can help ensure consistent city experiences regardless of a user’s location. Meaning a user who’s extremely into hiking from Boston will get off the plane in Los Angeles and automatically see the unique perspective local hikers.

The proposition might help in eliminating lag time in the discovery of the third places — coffee shops, parks, art galleries, temporal festivals, etc. — crucial to a local community’s social vitality. This transition toward urban discovery allows us to scale information retrieval fluidity for city services and, by integrating AI and neural networking functionality, lower the cost burden for smaller municipalities.

…ground citizens back into the physical world with the ease of use normally reserved for the digital world…

Acting together these factors could create a network of digital cities, each integrating their own physical and social capital to enhance user awareness of, participation in, and contribution to the quality of life of the community. Qualitatively, this might ground citizens back into the physical world with the ease of use normally reserved for the digital world.

Final Thoughts

Throughout this series we’ve examined both a practical and theoretical framework to evaluate the development of the digital city. While their marriage is necessary, proper execution is highly complex and will require cities to co-create with their citizens.

Using the knowledge gained in our theoretical exploration of network theory we examined multiple case studies of civic digital initiatives. The combination of these lessons helped form our model of hybrid placemaking to propose a hypothetical platform alternative. If successful, the proposed network might bring communities together, sparking new forms of techno-spatial collaboration to define places, memories, and legacies of cities.

The integration of communitysourcing enables network events to capture impactful moments, from the smallest to the generationally defining action, so they can be discovered and shared. This process of placing the citizen back into the physical world via an interactive map blurs the divide between reality and technology, inviting the user to explore them both simultaneously.

Finally, we must consider the repercussions of failing to acknowledge the digital city’s place in our increasingly hyper-connected social world. Brutal honestly of the city’s place in the hearts and minds of its citizens will enable digital urbanists to prioritize initiatives to maximum their impact.

Using the principles depicted in this series may help in that process; however, there is no substitute for the creativity found in co-creating with citizens. They will be the ultimate judge of a digital city’s success, but there is good news — they want to help in defining the city’s digital future of tomorrow, today.

End of Excerpt

Talk soon,


I welcome your feedback; keep in mind this is only a part of a series in which we’ll fully vet the concepts proposed here. Opinions are my own.

Further Reading

Carroll, John, Jessica Kropczynski, and Kyungsik Han. 2014. “Grounding Activity in People-Centered Smart Territories by Enhancing Community Awareness.” Interaction Design & Architectures 20:9–22.

Fabien Girardin et al. 2008. “Digital Footprinting: Uncovering Tourists with User-Generated Content.” IEEE Pervasive Computing 7 (4).

Hampton, Keith. 2007. “Neighborhoods in the Network Society the e-Neighbors Study.” Information, Communication & Society 10 (5): 714–748.

Jennifer Thom-Santelli et al. 2010. “What do you know?: experts, novices and territoriality in collaborative systems.” Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

John Carroll et al. 2015. “Reviving community networks: hyperlocality and suprathresholding in Web 2.0 designs.” Personal and Ubiquitous Computing (Springer-Verlag) 19 (2): 477–491.

Kurtis Heimerl et al. 2012. “Communitysourcing: Engaging Local Crowds to Perform Expert Work via Physical Kiosks.” Proceedings of the ACM SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

Naaman, Mor, Ross McLachlan, and Emily Sun. 2017. “MoveMeant: Anonymously Building Community Through Shared Location Histories.” ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. Denver: Association of Computing Machinery. 1–6.

Yoshimura, Yuji, Anne Krebs, and Carlo Ratti. 2017. “Noninvasive Bluetooth Monitoring of Visitors’ Length of Stay at the Louvre.” IEEE Pervasive Computing 16 (2): 26–34.

digital citizen