Scitech | The city of the future is digital

Hack Ta Ville brings new ideas to city planning

In his 2008 book The Future of the Internet: And How to Stop it, Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of Internet Law and Computer Science at Harvard University, divided the progress of contemporary technology into a binary system: sterile and generative technologies.

A sterile technology is fixed to expectations of the producers. Think of train tickets, punch cards, or Instagram-only cameras. They are made to accomplish a specific task within specified limits. A generative technology is the opposite: its uses are not limited to the desires of the vendors of the hardware or operating systems. Generative products give birth to new products, from the personal computer to Facebook. Zittrain calls this process, spread across multiple layers of social and technological relations, “generativity.”

Before the swift showers of September 8 soaked the city of Montreal, I saw on the 3rd floor of SSMU the process of generativity in action. The SSMU ballroom was the scene of a hackathon, an event where computer programmers find new uses for old hardware and software.  This event, called “Hack Ta Ville,” was an initiative to combine the disciplines of sustainable urban development with programming in order to improve cities. Generativity is inherent in the structure of a hackathon such as this.

“You Say City” is an example of generativity in practice. Pierre Beaudreau, the creator of You Say City, spoke with programmers and designers about his project at Hack Ta Ville. You Say City is a 3D tool for displaying new building designs. Users can upload models of both planned and imagined projects in a three-dimensional map of a city embedded in the Google Earth service. Each model comes with a marker indicating its location, which also contains a forum to discuss the design. These forums are where Beaudreau hopes people can “start talking about what they think is important for the city.”

Collaboration and networking was integral to the structure of Hack Ta Ville. While I was interviewing Beaudreau, a software technician sat at our table. He explained that he was looking for simple work, on the side, even though he already has a job. I spun around the room. At every other table, there were attendees on their laptops, turning and talking to one another, pointing at their screens, smiling and shaking hands. It reminded me of those romantic scenes writers and artists conjure about the modernists sitting in Parisian cafes sharing their grand ideas and collaborating on their exciting new projects. Some, including myself, dream of that time, and here it was in front of me, playing out in Javascript and PHP instead of paint and prose.

Throughout the day, workshops taught computer novices the basics of data visualization and programming languages like Python, while workshops for computer experts introduced them into the topics of urban planning, transportation, and sustainable development.
The purpose of Hack Ta Ville was explained to me by Jason Prince, research coordinator at the McGill School of Urban Planning. Prince said that he wanted to gather young people “on top of new emerging technologies and see what they come up with.”

Hack Ta Ville also offered a chance to observe the results of the Open Data Movement.

For the uninitiated, Jonathan Brun, the co-creator of Montreal Ouvert, delivered a talk at Hack Ta Ville on the Open Data revolution. This movement calls for transparency in municipal and federal governments, asking them to release their data in an open, centralized, and permanent platform. The data must be open, that is, it must be accessible to everyone in a non-proprietary format (so not in PDFs or Word). Most importantly, there must be a legal license allowing people to reuse the data.

Prince also believes that the Open Data movement is essential for the development of cities. “Urban planners depend on data for everything they do,” he said. He also expressed his dislike of how universities – a bevy of important data – continue to keep it private, despite being publicly funded. “It’s fundamentally wrong to not let that data [be] freely available,” Prince said.

The darker side of Open Data was also addressed in Brun’s workshop. When the Indian government published its entire datasets on land ownership, opportunistic construction corporations identified areas in which much of the population lives in poverty and has little formalized education, and proceeded to swindle the landowners out of the real worth of their land. This phenomenon ultimately exposed loopholes in India’s legal structure.
Both Brun and Prince are currently lobbying in Canada for more transparent government data. The movement is much further ahead in countries like the United Kingdom and United States, where laws advocating open information on the internet are being strengthened and rewritten.

Hack Ta Ville was ultimately successful in its attempt to plant the seed of the importance of open data in the minds of young creative digital entrepreneurs. However, the counter examples highlighted in Brun’s workshop demonstrated a more maniacal avenue for open data that exists outside the room filled with bright people with big ideas about improving cities. He showed that, though there is a push for open data to liberate us, the seductive emancipatory fantasy of the internet may instead blind us to the new expressions of old powers.