Interfaces Aren’t Just Screens

I joined Ben Green, Juan Francisco Saldarriaga, Sarah Williams, and John Schettino to share the following at the “Mobility + Spatial Agency: Autonomy in the New Urban Interface” panel at the Center for Architecture, New York, on September 12, 2019:

[2] This summer Google announced several new Maps features. The platform began offering live bus delay forecasts (which are particularly useful in cities that can’t provide such updates themselves). And it would predict how crowded your bus or train is likely to be.[1] Its AR Navigation feature launched in beta. Google also added a live speedometer, allowed users to report incidents like traffic jams and accidents, and introduced more multimodal transportation options – bike to bus to ride-share, for instance.[2] These hand-held interfaces promise – or least aspire to – a largely egocentric world of bespoke logistics and seamless connectivity. Those other people and vehicles that get in the way are subsumed into red “heavy traffic” notifications and stalled timers.

[3] The Maps app’s features ultimately became so robust – so insistent on alerting users to every minute deviation from optimal flow – that several sources offered tips for turning off Google’s flurry of distracting notifications.[3] Speaking of flurries of data: [4] Over the past decade or so, the classic mechanical split-flap board has departed from many train stations and airports, where it’s been replaced by much less enchanting LED or LCD displays, big versions of the same glowing rectangles that stare us in the face all day and keep us up at night. Maybe these new screens display the same information as the old boards – train line, time of departure, status, and track – but the means by which they do so is, I’d say, quite affectively impoverished. The flip boards’ small, moving, analog parts sounded out and performed time’s sifting and fluttering passage; theirs was a choreography that mimicked the frantic ballet of harried commuters. Their cadence was a tinny echo of a tiny steam engine. [5] LCD screens, by contrast, just glow, silently – and occasionally go haywire.

[6] Today’s transit systems are typically quite proud of their real-time data and user-oriented interfaces and apps, which enable travelers to worry only about origins and destinations, and very little in-between, outside, before, or after. [7] Yet many systems still print timetables – an undervalued genre of commercial literature that required inventive graphic design in order to convey vast amounts of information about every line and stop within a broad railway system, from morning to night, seven days a week. [8] The timetable has long functioned as an interface to a whole metropolitan area or region – sometimes even a whole nation – across an entire week. [9] Even in New York City of 2019, print and tape are commonly used mobility information interfaces.

I mention these historical and analog examples to remind us that the form of the interface matters. And that form impacts much more than the type or amount of information that can be conveyed. [10] A few years ago I wrote a couple articles in which I discussed the aesthetics and political significance of smart-city interfaces and urban dashboards, and I proposed a rubric for thinking critically about these tools, and asking how they work as both communication media and as political instruments.

I encouraged designers, planners, and technologists to develop a practice of interface critique that goes beyond the typical user experience research. [11] As I wrote in 2014, we “need to consider how these interfaces structure their inputs and outputs, how they illuminate and obfuscate various dimensions of the city, how they frame interaction, how that interaction both reflects and informs the relationship between citizens and cities, and ultimately how these interfaces shape people’s identities as urban subjects.”

[12] I offered a partial checklist of items we might want to consider in assessing these tools: What’s it made of, what’s it scale, where is it located, and how is it oriented? In what modalities can people interact with it? What senses are engaged? Is it interactive? How might these features include or exclude particular users – particularly those with disabilities, or those who speak other languages? How is the content composed and arranged on the screen or in the soundscape or tactile environment? How does the interface orient us both in our immediate location and within larger systems? How does it “frame” or segment its content – via boxes and buttons and borders? What data models underlie that content – and how do those data models embody a particular way of knowing the city, or extracting data from it? What other ways of knowing are left out? What can’t we map? What forms of experience or knowledge are simply unrepresentable in an interface? And what can we simply not know?

[13] The answers to these questions have consequences that run much deeper than travelers’ sense of personal autonomy and individual agency, which are among the variables highlighted in the program for tonight’s discussion. The urban interface – of which transit apps are one delimited variety – also has the potential to promote or discourage infrastructural literacy, to include or exclude different urban subjects, and to frame users of urban services as something more than users: maybe as publics or urban citizens.

[14] In those earlier publications, I noted that typical smart-city interfaces tended to frame their users in two primary ways: “as sources of data that feed the urban algorithmic machine (à la Google Waze), and as consumers of data concerned primarily with their own efficient navigation and consumption of the city.” Ultimately, most smart-city interfaces prioritize “corporately-managed or crowdsourced situational information, instrumental rationality and personal consumption and convenience.” What’s lost, in many cases, is “environmental wisdom, political agency and social responsibility.”

[15] Yet in a different context, the very availability of transit data, and the ability to cross-reference various data sources from governments and corporations and individual users on a map or screen, represents a tremendous act of collective citizenship. Consider one of Sarah’s projects, Digital Matatus, which she might tell us about later. The map reveals a self-organized macro-scale order underlying Nairobi’s competing private bus companies.[4] It was generated by laboriously tracing every route through the city – and the data that fieldwork generated has become a public data set, which Kenyans can then use to create their own transit tools. [16] We can find newer kindred maps in Beirut, Dar es Salaam, and Accra, among other cities.[5] Many of these projects come IN both web and print form.

[17] We might consider other modes of informational inclusivity. Hong Kong and San Francisco use tactile and audio maps for the vision-impaired. Other systems, like Seoul, use audio cues within their trains and stations. I’m currently working with the Architectural League of New York to edit a series on “digital frictions” for their Urban Omnibus publication; [18] one of our contributors is Chancey Fleet, a librarian at the Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library and a prominent accessibility advocate. She’s written a fabulous piece about accessible tools for navigation, and the way they create frictions between the map and the territory. It should be published in early October.

[19] These types of projects are about personal autonomy and agency – but they’re also about building an inclusive public. They’re about recognizing diverse modes of experience and ways of knowing. What other bigger pictures, or larger ethical frameworks, could our mobility interfaces encompass? What about mobility’s environmental impact – or its correlation to economic opportunity? Instead of valuing efficiency by default, [20] and perhaps allowing for a few “scenic route” alternatives, what if our mobility interfaces also gave us the option of viewing data in relation to [21] environmental justice or health or other values that matter to different communities? What if they gave us the option to learn a bit about transit history or infrastructural politics? What if they gave city governments and transit agencies and their publics an opportunity to envision future versions of themselves – and to lay tracks to their realization? [21]


** Thanks to @alexgekker, @blprnt, @incognitosum, @julianisland, @justinpickard, @k_llyi, @MatthewBattles, @rmartincole, and @ZachMelzer


[1] Alex Fabrikant, “Predicting Bus Delays with Machine Learning,” Google AI Blog (June 27, 2019); Taylah Hasaballah, “Transit Crowdedness Trends from Around the World, According to Google Maps,” Google Maps Blog (June 27, 2019); Khari Johnson, “How Google Maps Uses Machine Learning to Predict Bus Traffic Delays in Real Time,” Venture Beat (June 27, 2019); Paul Sawers, “Google Maps Now Predicts How Crowded Your Bus or Train Will Be,” Venture Beat (June 27, 2019). Kyle Wiggers, “Google maps Now Lets You Pair Transit Directions with Biking and Ride-Sharing,” Venture Beat (August 27, 2019). The Citymapper, Transit, and Moovit apps provide comparable services. Thanks to @alexgekker for encouraging me to acknowledge these services.

[2] John Porter, “Google Maps Can Now Tell You Your Speed in Real Time,” The Verge (June 6, 2019); Nick Statt, “Google Maps is Borrowing Another of Waze’s Best Features with Traffic Slowdown Reporting,” The Verge (April 5, 2019).

[3] Italics mine; Cameron Faulkner, “How to Turn Off Google Maps’ Many Notifications,” The Verge (June 26, 2019).

[4] Justin Patinkin, “These Digital Maps Could Revolutionize Nairobi’s Minibus Taxi System,” Next City (February 11, 2014).

[5] See Alessandra Facchin, “Mapping and Representing Informal Transport: The State of the Art,” DensityDesign (May 8, 2019).