#occupyPOPS – a participatory action research project to support civic life in public space

follow @occupyPOPS on twitter

Automated Protest Support

Robots have proven to be firm supporters of the Occupy movement, taking up protest signs where human arms grew weary and cheering participants with their dutiful ambivalence in performing repetitive tasks. They support political protest by disarming spaces, opening up pavement, availing relationships to new political potentialities.

Robots open up spaces by building consent. Their capacity to be predictable, mechanically transparent, silently operable, and in a desirable form affords them and the protest message they carry a hospitable reception in far more spaces than human protesters. Taeyoon Choi’s assortment of mechanical protesters occupied Zuccoti Park, but also a variety of gallery spaces – outlasting human attempts to enter the white cube. The Institute for Applied Autonomy’s Little Brother robot “capitalized on the aesthetic of cuteness” to bypass the “social conditioning that inhibits activists.”[1] Their ability to transcend spatial boundaries reflects their capacity to transcend social boundaries to form new and transformative connections. As Choi describes his project, it opens “a space for conversation and making friends, friendship as a metaphor for citizens in a democratic society.”[2] The form and the mechanical function of the robot draws attention, disarming spectators, opening a space for dialogue.

In the end, automation succeeds as a political protest support system insofar as it brings bodies together in physical space. The robots deployed by Taeyoon Choi and IAA are mechanical, physically present in the environments within which they strive to animate human action. Political protest support systems in virtual space, however, are about deploying software and data systems over information communication infrastructure. They occupy a place of uncertainty – their reliability, mechanism, and friendliness are all unguaranteed. Yet, virtual automation may be crucial for two reasons. First, it can aid in the formation, support, and selection of public space for political activism. Second, it can tactically employ the figure of the robot to support participation in public-making data projects.

Automation is no stranger to social networks and social networkers are not strangers to automation. Most web users are aware of spam bots dropping email in their inbox or soliciting unwelcome links on social networks, but research by Tim Hwang and the Web Ecology Project show how automated social network accounts are not just about selling pharmaceuticals or phishing for banks accounts. They are also used to support traditional lobbyist strategies by producing an image of campaigns as grassroots
action.[3] Hundreds of bots may be deployed to support a lobbyist position. The image of the grassroots support replicated through “astroturfing”, as the strategy is sometimes called.

While there are swarms of these virtual automatons attempting to accomplish goals by pretending to be human, there are a breed of rather socially acceptable and sometimes celebrated automatons. There’s the twitter account that tweets for Tower Bridge, fake celebrity accounts that algorithmically recombines catch phrases for humorous effect, but also countless that tweet for the dead – trolling the tome of authors and philosophers for 140 character phrases to bring them back to life in a moment of retweets.

Virtual Automation for Public Spaces

Introducing @occupyPOPS, a Twitter bot that coordinates weekly mini-occupy movements at a different privately-owned public space in New York City. Privately owned public space (POPS) is a city program that grants property developers increased density in exchange for publicly accessible outdoor and indoor spaces. In 2007 the City recognized the failures of the program and went about improving it with new regulations. The intended outcome of these changes was the increase of daytime public use of these spaces.

Department of Planning wants to see POPS occupied

Department of Planning wants to see POPS occupied (4)

In September, Occupy Wall Street created the opposite problem when it mobilized a protest movement in Brookefield Properties’ Zuccotti Park. Suddenly the under-utilization problem of a privately owned public space became a problem of over-occupation. Usability became a deciding factor in the City’s decision for and articulation of the eviction. Courts upheld the decision specifically endorsing the City’s case that the usage and usability of the privately-owned public space was compromised by the protest. Missing in these representations of usability were numbers. There were no numbers to show that use of the space had been reduced by the presence of the protesters. The matter had to be argued upon a speculation of a group’s effect on usage and usability. Occupy Wall Street protested their claim to the 99%, the City retorted with their claim to the contrary, while neither had any numbers to show for the contested space.

What are the numbers on public spaces in the city? Specifically, what are the numbers on these privately-owned public spaces that sprawl out almost undetectably in the city? Where are they? And how can political discourse become a normal and acceptable use of these spaces?

data from NYC OpenData#, visualization by author

data from NYC OpenData(5), visualization by author(6)

Readily available data on these land parcels offer conflicting pictures. According the City’s publicly available dataset on POPS there are just under 400 locations, but Bloomberg media says there are 500.[7] Although City standards outline a variety of requirements that include the number of trees, seats, and contact information that are meant to be posted in these spaces, all these requirements are missing from the publicly available dataset.

OccupyPOPS seeks to draw more humans to privately-owned public spaces and to add public information about these space – combining automated social media methods with collaborative database development and Open Data sources. The automated twitter account algorithmically selects a location for the next Occupy movement from the City’s published dataset of POPS (see fig 1.). Throughout the week leading up to a mini-Occupy, the bot running the twitter account sends out messages reminding and encouraging followers to arrive at a particular time on the given date.

fig 1, most icons from thenounproject.com

fig 1, most icons from thenounproject.com

In addition to automatically coordinating the event, the twitter bot broadcasts public information about the space – identifying where there are gaps and the need for public participation to improve available information on these spaces. The @occupyPOPS bot monitors Foursquare and Twitter for check-ins at addresses where a POPS is located. The bot sends the user a tweet letting them know that they are are at or near a privately-owned public space. It then sends a request to these users for help to fill-in or confirm details from the public dataset. Most of the details that the bot would request the user to verify include specifications outlined by the City, but not tracked within the available dataset.[8] The bot may also ask the user to offer their perception of the public space, an estimate of the people currently in it, whether it appears suitable for peaceful political protest, and if they have an idea on how it may be improved.

fig 2, most icons from thenounproject.com

fig 2, most icons from thenounproject.com

By drawing upon and cleaning the City’s dataset, OccupyPOPS makes each mini Occupy movement a method of increasing the usage of these spaces, mobilizing public participation in the regulation of these spaces, and in improving publicly available data.

fig 3, possible outcomes of a collaborative citizen dataset on public space

fig 3, possible outcomes of a collaborative citizen dataset on public space

The particular tactic in this project is the assembling of a networked public in a public space and for the improvement of urban conditions. “In considering the social sustainability of our cities,” says Mirjam Struppek, ”we need to look closer at the ‘liveability’ and environmental conditions of public space; if people are to be encouraged to appropriate public space, new supportive strategies are needed in which they can take on the role of pro-active citizens, not just law-abiding consumers.”[9]

The improvement and shaping of public spaces requires individual and community activists to engage opposing actors (the City, property owners) in a data supported discourse. The dialogue over the usage and shaping of public space will happen over the interfacing and interrogation of the various actors’ information support systems. A significant aspect of the debate over the Occupy movement’s access to Zuccotti Park was over usage and equitable access to the public space. In his statement on the day of the Zuccotti Park eviction, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said: “The law that created Zuccotti Park required that it be open for the public to enjoy for passive recreation 24 hours a day. Ever since the occupation began, that law has not been complied with, as the park has been taken over by protestors (sic), making it unavailable to anyone else.”[10] What data did the City have to support their argument that the Occupy movement had reduced public access to the park? What data did Occupy have to support their position in the park?

In the wake of the Occupy movement, property developers and their representatives will seek revisions to the POPS program. Leadership on the Real Estate Board of New York has already articulated an explicit desire to modify rules to eliminate protests from POPS.[11] What data can be used to challenge that attempt?

Developing and maintaining a participatory public data network that aggregates government sourced data and refines it through citizen annotations, additions, transformation, and information architecture opens up potential fields for action not limited to the normalized expectations and the operationalized requirements that have emerged from the contest between City and property owners over public space. “The database evokes an architectural process that emphasizes intense attention,” says Jesse Shapins.[12] The robots can help maintain the attention to public space that Occupy started.

Building a Collaborative Citizen Data Set

A collaborative data set on POPS could be developed as a wiki, each space defined by an article that anyone can edit. Another option is to develop the data set through form-based polling. This version of the project uses a web-based form accessible via smartphones to collect data. Participants can fill out the form either as a result of the twitter bot prompting them to do so or by simply visiting any POPS location and opening up the web app.

Questions were developed around the theme of use and usability. To identify what makes a privately-owned space public guided questions dealing with the perception of the space. Concerning use and usability, participants are asked if the POPS is open, whether it is accessible for people with disabilities, a count of the number of people in the space, and the seating capacity. Participants are asked to identify the ideal uses for the space by selecting activities from a list or by making their own suggestion. How the space becomes public is explored by asking participants: to look for a sign indicating that it is a public space, to express their prior sense of awareness of the space, whether the space feels welcoming, and if it was easy to find. Finally, participants are asked to describe the space in one word.

Upon completion of the poll, participants are invited to visit another POPS near their current location. This element of the data set building could be gamified to increase levels of data collection and refinement. Participants could share and compete with friends for points based on the number of POPS they visit. Points could be added for attending a location with friends. A game element could also draw interest in the project and on the spaces on social networks by giving participants the option to share their visits, findings, and scores.

Outcomes of the First OccupyPOPS Event

About a dozen locations were visited by the end of the day of the first OccupyPOPS event scheduled by the Twitter bot. The event was scheduled to take place at a POPS in Murray Hill. Some of the entries came from other parts of Manhattan including Midtown, Upper East Side, and the Greenwich Village. The first event was scheduled where there were about eight POPS within a four block radius. Three participants joined me for the walk starting at the POPS at 243 Lexington around noon.

The following images illustrate the variety of the POPS, the limitations of the data provided by the City, and how the collected data could change the way we look and use these spaces. Three of the seven locations visited in the Murray Hill neighborhood are shown here.

The types of public spaces did not vary greatly on the walk, most were residential plazas – public spaces attached to an apartment building. 243 Lexington appeared to be the most intent on being a public space. There was a clear sign indicating it as a POPS and clean, welcoming amenities were present to facilitate it as such. It was located right off the sidewalk, accessible and integrated with the street. Of the locations visited, it was one of three that had people in it. It was also one of the smallest spaces at 1,000 sqft.

200 East 33rd was the largest plaza visited. Without the app and a dull sign, it would have been hard to even see the space from the street let alone recognize it as a public space. The space is barren, disconnected from the street by a steep staircase and a hidden wheelchair ramp. Unlike any of the other spaces visited, this space did have one clear advantage over the others. It sits elevated over the corner of a busy street, making it a highly visible space if human activity such as a protest were to take place upon it. Any human presence makes this invisible space very visible.

166 East 34th illustrates some of the challenges in annotating these spaces. The POPS extends around the periphery of this building which means that the property owner has attempted to shape the public space within a confined portion of the total space. While we were asked by the doorman to leave the northern section of the POPS, we were welcome to sit as non-paying customers on the patio of the restaurant that occupied the southern section of the POPS.

Next Steps

There are several ways this data can immediately be used to support public action. Aggregations and samples from the collected data can be broadcasted by the Twitter bot, made available for download to transform with other data sets, or setup in an interface that can be queried to match publics with potential spaces for action.

Generating reporting and visualization methods for the results and exploring possible game elements to promote the development of the data set are logical next steps for the project as these will support the idea of citizen data sets by providing actionable data.

If nothing more is done with the twitter bot, at the very least there is a bot out there keeping the spirit of the Occupy movement alive, broadcasting about spaces that would rather stay obscure, hidden, and private.

Follow @occupyPOPS on Twitter

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[1] “Institute for Applied Autonomy.” http://www.appliedautonomy.com/
[2] Choi, Taeyoon. “Speakers’ Corner.” http://taeyoonchoi.com/speakerscorners/
[3] Isaacson, Andy. “Are You Following a Bot?” The Atlantic, May 2011. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/05/are-you-following-a-bot/8448/.
[4] “Privately Owned Public Space.” New York City Department of City Planning, 2009. http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcp/html/pops/pops.shtml.
[5] “Privately Owned Public Spaces Database.” NYC Open Data, December 1, 2011. https://nycopendata.socrata.com/Property/Privately-Owned-Public-Spaces/fum3-ejky.
[6] Visualization of locations of privately-owned public spaces generated in Processing using the Unfolding library, Cloudmade map #55356
[7] Spencer, Katie, and David M. Levitt. “Occupy Wall Street Eviction Highlights NYC’s Privately Owned Public Spaces.” Bloomberg, November 15, 2011. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-11-15/occupy-wall-street-eviction-highlights-nyc-s-privately-owned-public-spaces.html.
[8] “Privately Owned Public Space: Current Public Plaza Standards.” New York City Department of City Planning, 2009. http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcp/html/pops/plaza_standards.shtml.
[9] Struppek, Mirjam. “Urban Screens – The Urbane Potential of Public Screens for Interaction.” Intelligent Agent 6, no. 2 (n.d.). http://www.intelligentagent.com/archive/Vol6_No2_interactive_city_struppek.htm.
[10] “Statement of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg on Clearing and Re-Opening of Zuccotti Park.” Office of the Mayor, November 15, 2011. http://www.nyc.gov/html/om/html/2011b/pr410-11.html.
[11] Brown, Eliot. “Park Rules Scrutinized.” Wall Street Journal, October 15, 2011, sec. New York. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204002304576631413421195574.html.
[12] Shapins, Jesse. “Mapping the Urban Database Documentary.” In Urban Geographers: Independent Filmmakers and the City, edited by Mark Street. Berghahn Books, 2011.

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