Welcome to Social Imaging

The central element of this site is my PhD related work. I'm really interested in how network science, urban planning and social capital research can be woven together to generate new and valuable insight leading to better communities and cities.The significant levels of data we currently generate will only help us solve problems if we make use of them intelligently and involve a wide range of people and institutions in our civil society. 

This is a great video that explains  why looking at online social data is only a small part of the picture. It is vital that we understand the actual connections we have (or don't have) with other human beings. These patterns are always changing and may have become more brisk given the role of technology and other contemporary developments. 

The Innovation of Loneliness from Shimi Cohen on Vimeo.

One of the terms used to describe these kinds of data/social science/planning/design approaches is urban informatics. There is a new Center for Urban Science and Progress at NYU that represents a good institutional expression of this approach.

On this site you can see my connections at the University of Waterloo, read a brief overview of my PhD research plan, scan my coursework, look at a selection of my papers, and consider the long-term ideas I'm chasing.If you have recommendations, collaboration ideas or want to talk about crossing points, you can contact me at:
ingenuityarts [ at ] g m a i l (dot) c o m
@ingenuityarts on Twitter
ingenuityskype on Skype


Prototypes of Device Design

After reviewing many different design possibilities for the casing of the GPS data logging devices, I have settled on this general direction at least for the ramped-up trials I will be running with a few people. Some of the parameters I have set include:
* small enough to carry but big enough to keep track of
* unique enough to be interesting
* easily sourced materials
* scalable so that I can produce many of them
* economical so that they can be deployed in numbers
* waterproof
* modifiable
* capable of being turned on by research participants but not off
* materials that will enhance, not impair, satellite signals
* keep GPS antenna facing skyward
* won't roll off a table

With those parameters in mind, here is the first round of prototypes that use 0.125 inch wall thickness acrylic tubing (1 inch ID, 1.25 inch OD), waxed wood/cork and templates of the components. Wood protects against static and is easily worked with for prototypes and scaling up at moderate levels. The acrylic lets participants see what's inside, rather than going with a 'mysterious black box' approach. I can also include ID labels inside the tube where it will be protected but readable. The top two photos are prototyping sketches of a UP501 GPS module and an OpenLog SDmicro board where I'm experimenting with bypassing a microcontroller and writing direct from GPS to card - lower power use, increased simplicity, more compact size.


Understanding Networks is Critical for Change Leaders

When you spend time down in the details of network structures, processes, software tools, data collection and analysis, and academic paper processing, it can be difficult to translate some of that back into direct and meaningful action.

This case study from the Stanford Social Innovation Review called "Networking a City" (image is from the article) is an excellent example of how critical it is to understand networks as a means toward the various greater good ends that many of us are pursuing. We love our cities and think that they can be better. We love our communities of all kinds and see where they don't quite deliver what they might. Intractable challenges persist despite major investments of time, talent, and toil. Enter the gardeners of networks, people who understand that conditions where connections begin or are fostered or are enriched can lead to all kinds of good things.

In particular, the insight that there are different kinds of networks is well worth noting. The authors point out that different purposes require different kinds of networks. Connectivity networks are more open, exploratory, and adaptive to the interactions of the people in them. They are not oriented around goals like a alignment network would be nor are they making the change directly as might be the case with an action network. Just as a living organism has many kinds of interacting networks, our social and institutional interactions function in many distinctive ways. Easily forgotten, this is a vital point to remember in the churn and challenge of life within and among organizations.

This approach would work well in the think tank community, in cities where social service agencies are actively working build community capacity, and many other non-profit or charitable sector areas of action. I think a more modest approach could be run as well at smaller scales suited to local needs and limits. This is well worth thinking further about and developing more models from. Kudos to Interaction Institute for Social Change and their leader, Marianne Hughes.


Smaller homes need improved public spaces

If we are going to choose to live in smaller and smaller homes or apartments, it will be crucial to address the quality of life outside the small urban home. This is particularly true if large-scale shifts are going to be facilitated. It seems to me that there is a trade-off of variables - smaller personal space, improved quality of public space. What I mean is that if you live in a condo or small home, the quality of the street life and the walkable urban setting increases in importance because you haven't artificially duplicated them in the space you own.

If you live in a big home with lots of space around you that you own (inside and out), then you create within that space all that you want and need. If you go small, you place greater dependence on the public and common spaces to pick up on many of those needs. For example, if you want families to live in condos in high density areas, then the street level neighbourhood needs to enhance and enrich that family life. If it doesn't, families with children in these small spaces will be exceptions.

I wonder to what extent this will be true of boomers as well - a box in the sky is not sufficient without the rich and diverse sets of opportunities that enriched street level amenities offer. In the case of both families and boomers, the development of smaller space options will need to happen simultaneously with increased quality of urban common life. Full-scope development projects attempt to do this (often driven by formulaic assumptions about what people want, which is to say what commercial interests want) though they fail more than they succeed at this point. Not to lose hope. Over time, we'll get better at figuring this out and assessing how to design density more intelligently on the human factor side.

Thanks to Jillian Glover for this post in Urban Times on small urban homes.
Image: Lance Sullivan from The Tiny House Movement blog written by Nicole Shaw.


A 15 Square Mile Urban Lab

Labs are places where we conduct experiments to learn more about a phenomena, testing spaces that enrich our understanding and allow us to follow our intuitions in rigorous ways. As far as lab space is concerned, the proposal by Pegasus Global Holdings to scratch-build a mid-sized American city as a testing location is ambitious - lab space taken to a substantial level.

Developed on a 15 square mile parcel of land near Hobbs, New Mexico, the private firm will explore data networks, transportation, agriculture and many other aspects of life in cities. The objective is to help us understand what it means to negotiate the so-called transition from "dumb cities" to smart cities. Legacy cities are too encumbered by sustaining the legacy so PGH wants to take the infrastructure and then run all kinds of experiements in, on, and around  that infrastructure.

Given the overview article from Fast Company, it is unclear how the human factor will be taken into affect - ie what happens when you add humans as is found in the "dumb" cities we now live in. I can understand their interest in testing autonomous vehicles in a setting like this but we have long known (or are slowly relearning) that whatever technical solutions we may envision or create, the people become the most significant barrier to or endorsement of changes of one kind or another. I have written about this elsewhere but it remains a very critical factor, it is the critical factor that will determine whether or not we change rapidly enough to survive and flourish over the long term. 

Somehow, testing technologies and running experiments with everything but the people seems a bit off but perhaps experimental spaces like PGH envisions are a necessary step toward more realistic solutions in our urban spaces.