Reflections on a packed week at #AAG2015

aag_collageThe AAG internet (Association of American Geographers) annual meeting is said to be the largest gathering of geographers worldwide. I don’t know whether this claim is true or not, but I do know, that this conference IS large. So if you ever feel alone as geographer, go to the AAG annual meeting and you will never ever doubt, that you are a rare species.
In the following I’m going to summarize some impressions, insights and questions I grasped in the numerous sessions and events around the conference. As the conference is way to large to be captured as a whole this is a rather personal spotlight on a tiny fraction of what has been going on.

Highlights day 1

Last month  the Austrian Smart Cities Week internet took place in Salzburg. There were very few critical reflections – Michael Lobecks keynote was a pleasant exception – on what is actually going on under the label “Smart City”. Thus I was really excited whether the critical geography session internet on smart cities would help me to consolidate my yet blurry concerns about the prevalent tech-positivism. And yes, it did indeed. Especially Harrison Smith’s internet presentation was an eye opener for some downsides of the sharing economy, which is currently hyped in the media and financial sector and is frequently mentioned as positive example for a smart city. The concept of the sharing economy, very roughly sketched, is like this: bypass any institutional intermediates, don’t worry (too much) about regulations or tax obligations and share your couch, car or whatsoever in a peer-to-peer network facilitated by smart platforms. The fact that these platforms are actually multi billion companies (at least they are valued as such) served as one of several initial points for Harrison’s critique. He raised, among others, the essential questions of who actually dominates the smart city debate (it’s the big companies who create demands they benefit from) and who wants citizens – and of course political decision makers – believe in neoliberal utopias, such as the profit for the mass through sharing economy.
It is important to note, that it is not to be against anything – even not being against using ICT for making more liveable cities – but to contest an unreflected attitude towards technology and to raise awareness for social, but also economical and legal, implications! Negotiating the ubiquitous use of technology, the permanent collection of data and what can and should be done with them is of crucial importance, since the pure techno-perspective on smart cities is, as Kurt Iveson internet put it in this session, clearly post-political.

Anti gentrification demonstration in Vancouver. [credit: picture source url]

Sticking to this critical approach, I attended more sessions which tried to approach urbanization internet and mobility internet from a critical and even moral perspective. Beside several interesting case studies and paradigmatic discussions, I was intrigued by Markus Moos’ internet notion on sustainable mobility. His central argument was that densifying cities in order to make them more sustainable is nothing else than – in my words – “green gentrification”. So the question is for whom cities turn to be more walkable, greener, more sustainable? Referring to, what he called poster child in the sustainability discourse, Vancouver Markus showed how primarily young, urban professionals benefit from sustainability efforts, while families and poorer people are subsequently driven off.
Although the situation might (a comparative investigation would be more than interesting!) be different to a certain degree in Austria, I’ll try to address this concern more explicitly in future argumentations for sustainable mobility.

#chihacknight on April 21st 2015, Chicago. Click on the picture for more details.

#chihacknight on April 21st 2015, Chicago. Click on the picture for more details.

After my first conference day I joined Chicago’s weekly Open Gov Hack Night internet meeting. This is a gathering of nearly 100 people with very diverse backgrounds, who share an interest in OGD and evidence-based campaigns (ranging from racism to bicycle lanes). The informal but focused setting, the bunch of friendly people and the way local problems are tackled in a positive manner really inspired me. I wonder if something similar were possible back home …

Highlights day 2

Wednesday started with a session internet on bicycling – this was a really nice home game. Nevertheless I learned quite a lot. For example, that Taipei (Taiwan) has an extensive, government-sponsored bike sharing system internet, called YouBike. And, as Jen-Jia Lin internet demonstrated, this bike sharing system is integrative part of the city’s overall bicycle planning approach – something I’d love to see in Salzburg!
Interesting in the context of the upcoming workshop on transportation modelling at the GI-Forum (link internet), was Tyler Oshan’s model to estimate bicycle flows. For this, he used a spatial interaction model, which he calibrated with data from NYC’s bike sharing scheme.

The next session internet aimed to investigate how mobility futures might look like. Automated driving and carless cities were two major threads of this session. Eva Fraedrich internet from Humboldt University Berlin, made the important claim, that – and here we have it again! – self driving cars cannot be judged only from a technological perspective, but the numerous economical, legal and above all social implications need to be dealt with. Even more, technology, according to Eva’s argumentation, is only one part of a greater, social system and thus, norms, values and meanings must be addressed more explicitly.
Jade Rudler internet presented how she as an architect uses her – I’d call it – soft skills in order to anticipate people’s attitude to a carless, personal future. What I found really inspiring (and I’m thinking how it could be transferred to bicycle promotion) was her methodologically mixed approach, which was structured along the following degrees of affordance: thinkable? – feasible? – accessible? – perceived? – caught?

Active transport was also in the focus of my last session internet on this day. I make a confession at this point: this was my last session because I participated the beer field trip, well organized by Colleen Hiner (Texas State University) and colleagues. What called my attention in Harvey Miller’s internet presentation, was his claim that public transit can be regarded as active transport, since it picks up pedestrians and bicyclists. Well, while this holds also true for cars (it picks up pedestrians who walk from their couch to the garage), he showed impressive results from a study, where he proved how the building of a light railway system significantly increases the physical activity of people living around the stations.

Highlights day 3

twitter-aag-fleming-lectureI can hardly remember a lecture in the recent past that caught my attention as much as Bert van Wee’s internet (TU Delft) Fleming Lecture internet on “Accessible accessibility research challenges”. In combination with Antonio Páez internet, who served as great discussant, Bert made this session to a great source of inspiration for future research in the field of transportation and accessibility respectively. Here are the main fields of research Bert has identified in the context of accessibility, each associated with a bunch of research questions:

  1. Air transport. One of the posed questions – just to give an idea of what is was about – was, “What is the value of having options to fly available, even if these are not used?” Interesting question, isn’t it?
  2. Short distances, slow modes. Here the research questions primarily dealt with the effect of short distances (= cycleable) for different groups of people.
  3. Multiple modes. A very fundamental research question in this context was, how or with which indicators to measure multimodal accessibility. To tune applications such as the Public Transport Screener internet in this way would be a cool thing to do …
  4. ICT. Bert spent quite a lot of time on the question to which degree ICT could be an additional, digital mode of transport (accessibility facilitator) which, for example, reduces social exclusion or substitutes for physical access.
  5. Robustness. [Sorry, I’ve lost my notes here. Could anybody help me out?]
  6. Option value. Similar to the question raised in the context of air transport, the set of questions in this field aims to investigate how the value of having several access or mobility options could be measured and consequently be incorporated in models.
  7. Perception of accessibility. As most location decisions are not based on hard facts but on perception it is of great importance to know what the major determinants are.
  8. Good transport. Among others it is of great importance to differentiate between categories (how can these categories be defined?) of goods and to develop accessibility indicators for these categories.
  9. Big data. As vast amounts of data are generated it becomes an inevitable task to develop methods to use this data properly for accessibility studies. This implies first of all a profound knowledge of the limits of this sort of data. Lot’s of work to do!
  10. Logsum. How to best use it and what can it actually tell us? Over this topic a nice discussion between Bert and Antonio emerged.
  11. Accessibility and exclusion. Given the fact that not everyone has access to everything it is necessary to identify groups who tend to be excluded and to evaluate different approach to increase the accessibility for the most affected groups.
  12. Freedom of choice.
  13. Indicator set. Depending on what indicator sets are used accessibility analyses can come to very different results. How to feed and calibrate our models? Here I see significant links to our work; especially Robins web application internet for the calibration of indicator sets seems to be promising in this regard.
  14. Big picture. As accessibility is only one aspect of integrated planning approaches the coupling to other models and parameters (budget limits, environmental issues, safety etc.) needs to be optimized.

I hope I got all the questions. Anyway, what is here is challenging enough for several academic careers! Insofar Antonio’s remark was very important: it is the community that needs and will tackle the posed research questions.

Highlights day 4

Friday started with a rather fundamental session internet on transport & mobility and the production of urban space. Several authors of a forthcoming book internet with the same title presented their contribution. An essential take home message of this session was that the building of transport system (metros and light railways) is increasingly used for the manifestation of capitalistic, neo-liberal politics. Jean-Paul Addie internet, for example, reported from Toronto where a new metro line will connect the campus of York University and adjacent areas which will be developed in the future. But on the other side already existing, but marginalized neighbourhoods are bypassed. Thus urban inequalities are further tightened.

After a longer coffee break, which I used for some final preparations, I jumped right into a fantastic double session on OpenStreetMap studies (description of session 1 internet and 2 internet). Muki Haklay has done an excellent job in summarizing the two sessions. Thus I feel so free and simply refer to his blog internet.
My contribution to the second session emerged from some collaborative work I’ve done with Stefan Keller internet from the University of Applied Science Rapperswil. It focuses on two implications of OpenStreetMap’s flat data model and the community structure with little regulations and formalization: attribute inconsistencies and semantic heterogeneity. As I’ve already posted something about this here, I won’t repeat the details. Just have a look at the slides internet or search for the respective blog posts.

In his concluding statement Muki enthusiastically argued for (more?) ethics in OpenStreetMap studies. Because his points are so important I want to draw your attention to his slides (starting from slide 5):

During the sessions a vivid discussion on the raised topic was going on on Twitter. Search for the keys #AAG2015 and #OSM and you will find plenty of tweets.

Highlights day 5

CaptureThis is like a marathon. So here we are, on the last mile. Today I attended two sessions internet on urban elites. This was a nice closure as I started the conference with a critical view on urban processes. The sessions were dedicated to the dialectic of an extensive media presence of elites (“the wealth”, “the rich”, “the billionaires” etc.) on the one hand and their factual invisibility on the other hand.
Through examples from Ho Chi Minh City, Phnom Pen, Hongkong, Frankfurt, Tokio, Porto Allegre, Brussels and London it became obvious that although it is often referred to wealth in the context of globalization, distinct local, political, cultural and historical settings make the urban elites in the respective cities to a certain degree unique.
Especially compelling was Iain Hay’s internet contribution, who used the documentary film Born rich internet by Jamie Johnson for a discourse analysis. Iain primarily pointed to the culture of silence in elite milieus: they want to remain celebrated but not interrogated. I can’t help, but this reminded me of the smart city discussion at the beginning of the conference!

IMG_1822To wrap up – was it worth to attend the #AAG2015? Definitely yes!
Beside the adventure of attending and contributing to such a big conference, I learned a lot in the various sessions and could make contact with many people who work in the same or related fields.
Now it’s time to process and apply the vast amount of inputs. And of course to recover from the crazily cold and dry air in the conference rooms ;-)

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