Performed memories and intangible urban data (CC:BY-NC)

The Smell of Urban Data: Urban Archiving Practices Beyond Open Data

—Elisabet M. Nilsson, senior lecturer in Interaction Design, School of Arts and Communication, Malmö University, Sweden


In the last decades, with climate change and alarming news on the state of planet Earth, the call for new urban solutions and alternative ways of organising urban life with consideration to our common and finite resources is highly ranked on the political agenda (Emilson 2015; Gerst, Raskin & Rockström 2014).

The development of network technologies, wireless or wired, has enabled us to collect, store and share data on flows of actions and human activities in cities on a scale never before seen. The data sets generated are stored in urban archives (’urban’ in the sense of the topic or subject that is archived, not the physical location of the server) that sometimes are fully, or to a certain degree, open to the public and referred to as open data — and sometimes fully closed. What defines open data is that it is a resource “that can be freely used, reused and redistributed by anyone — subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and sharealike” (Open Data Handbook 2015). Typical open urban data sets hold data on energy consumption, population and depopulation, human mobility, traffic congestions, temperature fluctuations, environmental pollution, and various socioeconomic factors such as income, education and employment rate (Open Knowledge Foundation 2015).

Local governments and public authorities have a long tradition of collecting and archiving urban data on cities and citizens. In the mid-2000s, governments started to open up their archives hoping that open data could benefit society by creating conditions for more participatory democracy and public engagement. The hope was also that the data could be used to understand cities and urban dynamic processes and become a resource in domains such as urban development (Batty et al. 2012; Ubaldi 2013). Since then, the number of Open Government Data Initiatives has multiplied and become a political objective in many countries (see, for example, Data.gov.uk, Dutch data portal, NYC Open Data, UN Habitat Urban Data, US Government’s open data). Initiatives and projects exploring the potential of open urban data have received a lot of attention as well as funding, but so far only little research exists on the actual outcome of the interventions (Baccarne et al. 2014).

The ability to collect, store and share this massive amount of data on human activities and records, and store them in urban archives, raises a lot of questions regarding matters of privacy and the security of personal data in a surveillance society. An important part of the research scope of the Living Archives project is to critically scrutinise and reflect upon these matters of concern (see the work of Susan Kozel, Nikita Mazurov, and Jacek Smolicki). Without losing a critical perspective on urban archiving practices as such, the research interventions presented in this essay explore the other side of the coin, namely, the view of open urban data sets as an enabler and a resource in processes of urban development (Batty et al. 2012).


Open urban data as a social resource

By analysing open urban data, the movements of people, material and actions can be modelled, visualised and serve as input when drawing the big picture of a city. The belief is that such insights will improve our chances of coming up with urban solutions that make cities ‘smart’, function more effectively and become more sustainable on an infrastructural level.

The concept of smart cities has been developed during the last decades and can be described as a collection of ideas on how network technologies generating open data can play a larger role in the functioning of cities and in how to address urban matters. As put forward by Batty et al. (2012), “[c]ities are becoming smart not only in terms of the way we can automate routine functions serving individual persons, buildings, traffic systems but in ways that enable us to monitor, understand, analyse and plan the city to improve the efficiency, equity and quality of life for its citizens in real time” (p. 482). There is a long list of projects currently exploring the potentials of using open urban data to plan for and to build smart cities (see, for example, CityZen, European Smart Cities, Green Digital Charter, PLEEC).


Urban archiving practices beyond open data

Open urban data sets of the kind referred to so far can certainly be helpful in visualising the mountains and valleys of a city and in answering questions on urban matters starting with a what. Cities are complex systems developed through numerous individual and collective choices, everyday practices and more than the sum of their parts (De Certeau 1984). As a complement to the rather functionalist vision of smart cities, we have seen so far that there is a call for a more human-centred perspective and a focus on micro-scale urban processes that binary algorithms cannot grasp (Batty et al. 2012). The development of resilient urban solutions requires a holistic view of a city and the social processes that are taking place. If we want to zoom in, dive into a particular valley of a city and smell a flower, we need alternative methods that can be applied when looking for answers to questions starting with a why.

The Urban Archiving research theme (also reported on in Nilsson & Wiman 2015a; Nilsson & Wiman 2015b) in the Living Archives project focuses on urban data archives that may provide input when answering questions starting with a why. The urban data we explore is of the kind generated on cultural practices and the cultural heritage of a city. It might seem misleading to use the term data when referring to this kind of material since data conventionally is more known as raw, unprocessed material (numbers and characters) and potentially informational (Markham 2013). Even if the material that we focus on is of a richer kind, we still choose to use the expression urban data. This data can also be described somewhat as ‘raw’ since it requires interpretation and analysis in order to make sense of it in the context of urban development. To avoid confusion, from now on we will refer to the data generated as part of our project as intangible urban data to distinguish between it and the kind of urban data automatically generated by network technologies. All digital data can be described as intangible due to its digital nature, but what we refer to is the source from where the data is generated.

That is, ‘intangible urban data’ is not data derived from counting cars or energy, but data generated on cultural practices and cultural heritage.


An assumption also guiding our research is the claim that the development of resilient cities includes inviting marginalised groups to the discussion and encouraging citizen participation on all levels (Ehn, Nilsson & Topgaard 2014). Our attention is thus directed towards marginalised communities that rarely are invited to have a say in matters of urban development. What we here refer to as ‘marginalised communities’ are not necessarily communities considered as weaker, but, rather, as underrepresented voices in the public debate. Our focus is put on intangible urban data generated by people that are not so visible for various reasons — cultural backgrounds, language skills, education — but nevertheless ought to be included in urban archives.

As put forward by Derrida (1995), an archive affirms the past, present and future; it preserves the records of the past, and it embodies the promise of the present to the future. The voices not heard and the kinds of material that cannot be accommodated by the archive are excluded from our historical record. Further on, he argues that “[e]ffective democratization can always be measured by this essential criterion: the participation in and access to the archive, its constitution and its interpretation” (ibid., p. 29). What if alternative urban archiving practices can contribute to processes of democratisation and to creating a more holistic view of our cities and urban processes by inviting the underrepresented to contribute to urban archives?


Research approach and process

To summarise, the aim of Urban Archiving is to explore and prototype urban archiving practices generating intangible urban data, that is, urban data that potentially can give us insights and deeper understanding of urban matters and human behaviour.

Our research approach is guided by principles and methods from the field of participatory design (Halse et al. 2011; Simonsen et al. 2013). In short, the participatory design approach can be described as a diverse collection of principles and practices aimed at creating alternative futures, supporting democratic changes by involving the users in co-design processes. Instead of designing for the users, the designer works with the user. Our approach is also informed by artistic and curatorial practices and research (Kester 2004; Thomson 2012) suggesting alternative models of citizen participation, methods and tools for urban development. In line with Thompson, we have the view that “symbolic gestures can be powerful and effective methods for change” (Thomson 2012, p. 18).

The research process consists of a series of interventions conducted in the form of design activities and artistic actions or gestures. The process results in a collection of prototyped urban archiving practices. The tools and methods are developed together with the communities and artists we are collaborating with, and new tools and methods are continuously added.


Urban gardening communities as urban archives

Our activities are situated in urban contexts, which offer a wide range of entry points for research. In order to narrow down the window of exploration, we initially focus on the phenomenon of urban gardens, which lately has gained an increased attention as a means to attain resilient cities (Dziedzic & Zott 2012). Conceptually, the assumption is that an urban gardening community can be ‘read’ as an urban archive collecting, storing and sharing data about that particular community. The urban garden is perceived as a performed memory expressed through the cultural background and experiences of the gardeners. The urban archiving practices prototyped so far are designed to collect, store, and share these performed memories of the gardening communities and form new urban archive material.

Visual overview of the project outline and process

In the following, a collection of urban archiving practices generating intangible urban data via urban gardens is briefly described: Eat a Memory, Plant your History, Memory Game and Soil Memories.


Prototyped urban archiving practices

EAT A MEMORY is an urban archiving practice where eatables from urban gardens are part of exploring food and meals as performed memories and cooking as archiving practice. A joint meal in the form of a potluck is applied as a platform for generating intangible urban data on communities and urban areas. Through the act of cooking and eating, memories are collected, stored and shared in various formats, such as recipes, a taste, a smell and visual representations The practical implementation is that community members and other agents, for example, urban developers, gather for a meal to which everybody brings a dish from their childhood memories. At the gatherings, the participants perform their memories; that is, they prepare their dishes and serve them along with the background stories. The sharing of memories and cultural heritage are re-enacted through more than one sense; for example, the taste and smell of a specific moment in history are shared.

Performing memories (CC:BY-NC)

To test and prototype the possibilities of applying such an approach, we have up to now arranged sessions in collaboration with two communities (in Sweden and in the U.S.). Since the focus is on urban gardens, the theme of the sessions prototyped so far has been ‘your grandparents’ garden’. The following is an excerpt from the invite sent to the community members:

”Bring a dish from your family memories. An ingredient, a vegetable, a fruit, a soup, a dessert — something that your grandparents (or any other important person from your childhood) served you when you were a child. If they had a garden, bring something that could have grown in their backyard. If they lived in the city, bring something that they got for you in the grocery store. The gathering is about performing memories by tasting flavours from your childhoods, and sharing these memories by sharing a meal together. The meal becomes a performed memory, preserving history, as an archive that travels through time and place, from mouth to mouth.”
A table of performed memories (CC:BY-NC)

PLANT YOUR HISTORY explores the notion of the urban garden as performed memory, and in what ways urban gardens manifest the cultural heritage of communities and residents in a neighbourhood. The planting of histories is thought of as being an urban archiving practice that invites community members to share their cultural heritage and backgrounds. Using the urban garden as ‘language’, and not only relying on spoken or written language, opens up the archiving practice for people who otherwise would be excluded due to lack of language knowledge.

Urban gardeners planting histories (CC:BY-NC)

Two urban gardening communities were invited to test the idea and to explore whether their personal history could actually be planted in a garden and in what ways a garden can share stories beyond words about them, their family and their community. Since the growing season has still not finished, we have yet to harvest the urban data generated and result of the design process, us prototyping together with and learning from the communities and their practices.

MEMORY GAME is a card game (a remake of the classic memory game) designed to work as a framework for collecting, storing and sharing memories and histories. The game was developed in collaboration with an artist collective and played together with community members. The game consists of a deck of cards with an image on one side and a blank reverse side. In the first round of a gaming session, the participants are asked to take an empty card and write down a memory relating to their urban gardens. In the second round, they are invited to play the game. All the cards are put into a box, and each participant picks a card, reads it, lays it down and relates it to another card, reading the flowing text out load. The gameplay builds upon an associative play between the players, and thus memories are performed.

Urban data in the making (CC:BY-NC)

SOIL MEMORIES is an act of collective storytelling and an archiving practice intended for looking at soil as medium-generating multi-layered urban data. The materiality of soil offers a tactile and sensory starting point for talking about notions of being, belonging and home. Moreover, 2015 is the International Year of Soils. Soil Memories is a tribute to soil as a carrier of cultural heritage, life and memories connecting the present with the past and the future. It takes several thousand years to build a thin layer of fertile topsoil, but only an hour of heavy rain to lose it.

At a Soil Memories gathering, the participants bring a scoop of soil from a place that is important to them. All contributions are collected in a big pot, forming a new mixture of ‘land’ consisting of fragments from the participants’ individual histories. The participants are also asked to share their memories of the place where the soil is taken and how it relates to its new ‘home’. Besides being a tribute to soil as material and a container of urban data, the intervention is thought of as being an experimental archiving practice aimed at gaining a deeper understanding of an urban place and the community that refers to this place as home.


Capturing intangible urban data and creating new urban archives

To return to the aim of the research interventions here described — that is, to explore and prototype urban archiving practices for collecting, storing and sharing intangible urban data — the assumption is that such urban archiving practices can contribute to a more holistic view of cities, provide deeper insights on urban matters and become a complement, or maybe even a provocation, to the image of an urban area outlined by urban data generated by network technologies. We are obviously not the first exploring such thoughts, nor are we the first to have conducted experiments on how to archive the intangible cultural heritage of a city. An important question explored within the Living Archives project (see, for example, the work by Jacek Smolicki) is how to overcome the passive generation of data coming from all sorts of network technologies by turning to more sensible techniques anchored in human experiences.

The urban archiving practices prototyped up to now can be described as a collection of methods and tools for a more intimate kind of urban archiving practice. We attempt to develop concrete prototypes for generating intangible urban data without losing its immaterial, and sometimes poetic, nature. Further, the interventions and prototypes are an attempt to create conditions for underrepresented communities to contribute to the discussion about urban development and to encourage participation. Since the urban archiving practices prototyped allow for the involvement of many senses, we describe them as democratic and inclusive conversation tools generating urban data in a highly structured, but still personal, way.

Everyone gets an allotted time to perform and share their memories and cultural backgrounds, through their food, via a garden, a game or a scoop of soil, with or without words, regardless of the level of language skills.

Our experiences from participating in the interventions are that the set-ups created intimate atmospheres and encouraged participation in conversations about cultural heritage and urban space in a natural way.

Based on the outcome of the interventions, we suggest that the urban archiving practices prototyped can be used as tools for accessing and sharing new and diverse background stories about communities and urban areas and for studying urban complexity. These alternative forms of urban archiving practices can potentially be applied by professionals in the field of urban development as a tool for recruiting community members and residents that are not comfortable in attending formal planning meetings with urban developers, but whose contributions nevertheless ought to be included in urban archives. Again, as argued by Derrida (1995), the voices not heard and the kinds of material that cannot be accommodated by the archive are excluded from our historical record.

Up to now, our main effort has been to generate and collect intangible urban data. The next step focuses on storing and sharing these sources and on turning them into open urban data sources, which can be freely used, reused and distributed. However, transforming personal memories and heritage into open urban data sources raises serious questions about exposure and the privacy of personal data. An important issue that is still unsolved is how to balance matters of privacy with the call for increased participation in contributing to open urban archives for democratic reasons and for improving our chances of finding answers to urban problems starting with why.


About the author

Elisabet M. Nilsson, Ph.D. in Educational sciences, Senior lecturer in Interaction design at School of Arts and Communication (K3), Malmö University. Besides teaching interaction design, Elisabet runs the Urban Archiving research theme in the multidisciplinary research project Living Archives. Guided by principles and methods from the field of participatory design, she explores archiving practices for capturing, storing and sharing urban data on communities, and the intangible cultural heritage of cities. In collaboration with urban communities, a series of experiments are conducted, including hands-on design projects prototyping how urban archives can become resources in urban development, but also projects “dreaming” about and imagining alternative urban futures, and ways of living together.


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