On spatiality in urban media research

The following post investigates the question, why urban space and spatiality is important in urban media prototyping. It argues that spatiality and public urban space are almost forgotten entities in research up to date. Even though different disciplines, such as urban planning, architecture, but also philosophy and nowadays computer science, are in one way or another concerned with public space, very few attempts have been made to understand the actual influence new media have onto public space. This blog post investigates some of the reasons for this fact and ends with arguments why spatiality should be considered more in urban media research.

The importance of spatiality could be argued for in a few very obvious, almost banal statements:
We live in space.
Our bodies are space.
We are space.
These statements emphasize that we can only exist in space. That is why space is important.

But going deeper into the analysis of spatiality we can find many more reasons why spatiality should be considered more, especially also in urban media prototyping:
Nowadays we can find many articles stating that mobile technologies make us lonely (see e.g., Luscombe 2010) and looking around us during our everyday public transport rides, at times we might start to believe they are true (e.g., Ito, Okabe, and Anderson 2007 argue for the term “cocooning”, meaning users disconnect from their physical surroundings through smartphones). The urbanist Paul Virilio argued in 1997 that through computers spatial distances loose their importance. He even states the “distinction of here and there no longer mean anything” (Virilio 1997, 383). Similarly Manuel Castells in his book “The Rise of the Network Society” develops the concept of Spaces of Flows, which refers to the dominant spatial organization in the network society. Spatial distances also seem to be overcome. However, Castells differentiates also the system of Spaces of Places that are the traditional physical spaces between which the physical distances can only be overcome in a longer timespan. It can be said that the denial of the importance of spatiality has been overcome in urban planning and urban design research, but it still seems to be forgotten in urban media research:

Reading through several articles from the last years of urban prototyping and related literature no articles that deal with spatiality could be found:

Most research projects concentrate on community networks (see e.g., Foth 2010; Foth, Gonzalez, and Taylor 2006; Bilandzic, Foth, and De Luca 2008) or networks for communication between citizens and city governments (see Nash 2013). Furthermore participation as a form of citizenship is explored (see e.g., Burgess, Foth, and Klaebe 2006). Also new ways to enhance collaborative planning are a topic in different articles (Foth, Hearn, and Klaebe 2007; Foth, Klaebe, and Hearn 2008 focus on narratives as a collaborative planning method).

Another research focuses on the results of an urban media application: functional photos taken with smartphone cameras. The authors argue that users mostly take functional photos simply because they are able to (see Häkkilä et al. 2012).

The paper that comes closest to dealing with spatiality in urban media prototyping is Jan Seeburger’s writing about a media intervention called PlaceTagz, conducted in Brisbane/Australia (see Seeburger 2012). The project uses QR tags to enable users to interact with a place and with each other in that place. Seeburger states his goal is to “facilitate interactions with people in the same public space” (Seeburger 2012, 247), in other words the project tries to create more social and enjoyable experiences in public space. However, even though the researchers conducted interviews their analysis of this project remains on the level of sustainability of the used technologies and does not take the step towards perceived and acted spatiality.

As explained, the current research on urban media prototyping deals mostly with urban media as communication or participation tools (see Nash 2013; Foth 2010; Foth, Klaebe, and Hearn 2008; Foth, Hearn, and Klaebe 2007; Burgess, Foth, and Klaebe 2006; Foth, Gonzalez, and Taylor 2006) or even stays on the level of technologies (e.g., Madan et al. 2010 remains on the level of sensing technologies). Some also concentrate on the outcomes of urban media applications (see Häkkilä et al. 2012). However, the focus on spatiality is almost entirely missing in these articles.

Many different disciplines have been concerned with public space: Traditionally architecture is the most obvious one. Much later urban planning evolved in many countries, and took over the planning and design of public spaces, which until then had often just been the leftover places from architectural development (I think of the central-European cities in the middle ages here). Over time a political interest in public urban spaces evolved: Public space was the space for the citizens to participate in the state affairs (e.g., through demonstrations) or for the state to demonstrate it’s power (e.g., military parades). In the 20th century a larger interest in everyday life evolved (see e.g., Highmore 2002 for an investigation of everyday life studies) and some philosophers and urban theorists became interested in public space as a manifestation of everyday life practices (for example Henri Lefebvre).


It is only recent that digital technologies for the masses have evolved and that these digital media became transportable and therefore used in public spaces. However, through the use of New Media in public spaces, public space’s nature changes.

A spatial interest in media research in the last years is undeniable, but the focus in for example the Ubicomp conference has always been either on the technological side or on indoor environments (see e.g., Jiang et al. 2011). Lately different sub-areas of architectural, sociological, media-theoretical and other practices, such as urban informatics and urban interaction design, evolved. Here the same fact is still mostly true: The spatial interest is largely pointed towards indoor environments and community building (see e.g., Foth, Gonzalez, and Taylor 2006; Foth 2010) and the focus on people’s experience of space is missing.

I want to underline that spatiality is a versatile phenomenon, which is not easily graspable by listing some of the challenges spatiality poses for researchers:

Firstly, space has an individual character. As Hanna Arendt argued space is always a mixture of many aspects perceived from a certain standpoint (see Arendt 2002, 71–72). Merleau-Ponty even claims that “there are as many spaces as there are distinct spatially lived experiences” (quoted in Lehtovuori 2005, 121). This of course leaves us with the dilemma to develop good frameworks to analyze spatiality, which by default is not an easy task.

Secondly, as Löw, Lefebvre and others have argued we cannot analyze space without influencing it at the same time (see e.g., Lefebvre 2011; Lehtovuori 2005, 74; Löw 2007, 82; Klamt 2007, 29). This might seem to suggest that research cannot be accurate if the researcher is by definition influencing the experiment. However, if one is aware of this influence and analyzes carefully how one might have influenced the situation research on spatiality can be fruitful.

Thirdly, most researches in the field of spatiality admit that public space is always in flux (see e.g., Lehtovuori 2005, 75; Klamt 2007, 75; Löw 2007). It is always changing and will never be the same again. Two different conclusions might be drawn: Firstly, it might seem even more impossible to analyze space (see above). Secondly, one might suggest that if the space is always changing there is no value in analyzing it in a certain point in time.
But the opposite is the case. Public urban space is the area that connects people on different levels (see e.g., Arendt 2002, 65–66; Lehtovuori 2005, 15). These connections might be geographical, political, social or of many other kinds. From my perspective this alone is a good enough reason to encourage research in spatiality.


However, why is urban space and spatiality important to urban prototyping? Urban media prototyping is research conducted within and about public space. It should therefore be interested in all the aspects it is dealing with. Without becoming technology-deterministic urban media research should consider how people use technology to “cocoon” (see Ito, Okabe, and Anderson 2007) or to explore space in a new way (e.g., geocaching as a new form of entertainment facilitated by mobile technology). Only when we understand the influences that technology has on people’s behavior in public spaces we can start to design projects that bring people together, instead of making them “cocoon” and that empower them to take part in the emerging forms of societal and political life.


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Bilandzic, Mark, Marcus Foth, and Alexander De Luca. 2008. “CityFlocks.” In , 174–83. ACM Press. doi:10.1145/1394445.1394464.
Burgess, Jean E., Marcus Foth, and Helen G. Klaebe. 2006. “Everyday Creativity as Civic Engagement: A Cultural Citizenship View of New Media.” In ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation; Creative Industries Faculty; School of Design. Sydney. http://eprints.qut.edu.au/5056/.
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Hackathon was a success!

“Digitalkoot” (digital + talkoot) was a mixture of coding hack day, GUI prototyping, and event idea generation. Four tracks focused on different themes supporting development of the Siivouspäivä flea market day concept: Video, Mobile app coding + interface design, Event “How to…” Guidebook, and Stories.

Here I’ll mention just a few emerging ideas and how they relate to the CoMeUp platform:

  • A digital prototype for a Siivouspäivä mobile app was developed by drawing data and code from the Siivouspäivä website and the CoMeUp map-based web app. Designers of the event-specific Siivouspäivä app considered differences between vendors’ and shoppers’ perspectives. Some interactions, such as registering your marketplace before the event, are a priority for vendors. Other interactions, such as searching for items on the event day, are a priority for shoppers. While these interactions are supported by the same data sets, they must be represented differently (yet also be visually related) in the interface. The CoMeUp framework is suitable to use as a general basis for georeferenced media sharing.

One of the mobile track groups in action

  • The stories track discussed non-digital interactions that take place during Siivouspäivä. For example, face-to-face conversations between vendors and shoppers bring added value to items for sale and to the event experience. A price tag was designed that would encourage vendors to attach a comment to things they are selling. CoMeUp could support archiving, tracking, and browsing these spontaneous interactions that bring special energy to urban public spaces.
The price tag design

The price tag design

  • A unique aspect of events like Siivouspäivä is that corners of the city normally hidden to those who are not local residents are shared with visitors. Some people even open their private homes or work spaces. Discovery of these “hidden” gems of urban culture  could be facilitated or archived using CoMeUp. Because the simple CoMeUp interface supports easy browsing and sharing of large amounts of georeferenced media, users can quickly gather qualitative impressions about local characteristics beyond the practical understanding of where points are situated on the map. The CoMeUp interface could be used to suggest interesting routes or for individuals to create personal journals during the day.
  • The mobile app track and Stories track both generated ideas related to color-coded filtering of georeferenced data. Colors could be used to designate routes through the city, user-defined sets of interesting locations, etc. Color-coding has not yet been integrated into the CoMeUp prototype. It could be useful to consider using color, for example, to define groups, media sets, locations, or routes.
Ideas for a color-coded story path

Ideas for a color-coded story path

A big big thanks to all participants to the hackathon!

Mobile app hackathon at Siivouspäivän digitalkoot on 16.3!

CoMeUp teams up with the New Media for the Third Sector course at Aalto University to propose a one day hackathon on 16.3! If you’re interested in getting your hands on the CoMeUp code and hacking up a wonderful mobile App for Cleaning day, then go register for the mobile app track at http://siivouspaivandigitalkoot.eventbrite.com/ and meet us at the Aalto Media Factory in Arabia. YEEEEEAAAAAAAHHHHHH!!!!!

Come to the hackathon!

Come to the hackathon!

Experiments during Cleaning Day (Siivouspäivä)

Cleaning Day, or Siivouspäivä in Finnish, was started for the first time in Spring 2012 in Helsinki, and was a big success. The idea, initially thought of by Pauliina Seppälä and friends, is simple: on Cleaning Day, you can set up a little flea market anywhere in the city, where you bring your old things and sell them or give them away. The Cleaning Day website provides a map interface where you can mark the spot of your own stand. During the second Cleaning Day on the 8th of September 2012, and thanks to collaboration with the City of Helsinki Public Works Department, the marking on the map is automatically considered as being pre-approved placements of sales spot, without any separate official permit needed.

Cleaning Day sewing workshops in Helsinki city center

Andrea, from our team, has been active in Siivouspäivä from the very beginning and knew the core group of people organizing it. We decided to propose to some of them to test our prototype for the CoMeUp App during this autumn’s Cleaning Day. Pauliina and Jaakko joined in and we provided them with one Samsung Galaxy and one iPhone complete with the prototype App and a working mobile internet.

Pauliina and Jaakko getting acquainted with the CoMeUp App one day before Cleaning Day

The mobile interface was still crude, but easy to use

The App work as followed: after initializing it, one could choose to take a picture, record audio, record a video, write text, or choose any of the above from existing galleries on the mobile phone (e.g. older pictures). Once the media was recorded or chosen, it could be identified by text to be inserted in a field (this text could be the title or  free form tags/keywords, or even hash tags – Pauliina and Jaakko used it mostly as a free tags/keywords and hash tag field). A list of pre-defined tags used by the Cleaning Day map interface users was also available, and tags could be picked from it.

Hash tags could also be used as signs on the stands

We also wanted to test briefly could there be any potential in using QR codes, but only staged some situations where we thought they could be used, in order to discuss the possibilities later.

A QR code for a specific location during Cleaning Dy could lead to a list of activities happening there, or to the list of objects being sold in the surroundings.

Some weeks after the Cleaning Day was over, we chatted with Pauliina, and later with Jaakko. The experiment clearly got them thinking about the potential of taking photos of the stuff that would be used during Cleaning Day, beforehand, as a way for people to browse what would be sold during the Cleaning day. Moreover, people could also document the stuff that had not been sold during Cleaning Day, so that others who might be interested in it, could later trace them. This photo documentation in a sense would extend Cleaning Day to  before and after the actual event. We will take these thoughts with us now and think of the next design steps and continue our collaboration with the Cleaning day people!

The prototype for the web interface

During October however, Joanna and Sara have to take a little break from CoMeUp to focus on their doctoral and masters thesis respectively! Aapo will continue to work on the mobile App. We are also hoping to organize a hackathon (à la Restaurant day hackathon, but for Aalto students!), probably February/March to get interested students from Aalto to develop the CoMeUp App and maybe a variation of it, which would especially address the Cleaning Day needs. We also plan to test the new iteration of the prototype with Kotikaupunkipolut (Home city paths) activists. Stay tuned!

Spring updates

Aapo and Joanna have been working on the mobile app (which we might eventually call ComAp… we’re still debating this). It is based on an initial prototype done in collaboration with students from the T-76.4115 course at Aalto SCI. The first App was build for Android. The one we have now has been build using Phone Gap, which means it is adapted for multi platforms.

Mobile application


Web interface

The App makes it possible to collaboratively create geo-referenced text, photo, audio and video entries around a topic of interest for communities. The idea is that this collected media would then be collaboratively handled and analyzed online, i.e. viewed, edited, categorized, so that it can eventually be used as a material for discussion and collaborative work. We are especially interested in researching how this can work with urban communities wanting to affect their everyday environment and eventually work with city officials and planners. We are also not using the cloud, but rather examining the idea of a community server, where communities have more control over the media content they produce and share.

Our user interface designer Anne Luotonen will join us during the month of June to develop the mobile app user interface and ideas for the web interface. Media lab student Sara Jacobsen will then take over in Autumn.

Wireframes for the user interface

Wireframes for the user interface