Chapter VII: Conclusion

This chapter concludes the work completed as part of this research. It is therefore divided into two main parts: First I recall the research process, identify the most important steps and learning experiences, and try to transfer the case study results to digital mobile media in general. Secondly, I glimpse at the future of the Urban Alphabets project but also the field of research concerned with spatiality of public spaces influenced by New Media in general and digital mobile media in particular.

VII.1 Looking back: How did it go?

VII.1.1 Lessons learned and important steps

The implementation of the research for this Master’s thesis lasted more than two years. Thus, many small steps were taken in order to advance the Urban Alphabets project. Personally I have gained much experience and developed numerous skills. Many steps could be mentioned here but to keep it simple only three are selected:

The first and most important step to start the research process was the development of the first version (v1) of the Urban Alphabets application in December 2012. The prototype was not just my first experience with programming for a mobile platform (Open Frameworks for iOS), but it gave rise to the personal realization that a simple mobile application can change the users’ relationship to public space for the better.

The second important step was the acceptance into the open call “Participatory City 2014” by the CCN. The network enabled me to conduct workshops in six unique and diverse settings, which certainly enriched the research process and outcomes of this work.

As a third important step, I want to mention a funding: AVEK’s Digidemo financing enabled me to concentrate full-time onto the Urban Alphabets project and the accompanying research during 2014. Without this funding the amount of workshops, the development of the Android application and the constant integration of user-feedback after the workshops would not have been possible.

The Urban Alphabets project allowed me to combine many of my interests and advance my knowledge in multiple areas. The project was my first interaction point with programming for mobile applications: I learned to code in two creative coding frameworks for iOS, Open Frameworks and C4, and finally gained knowledge of objective-C. I advanced my skills in front-end web programming and learned basic PHP for the database integration from the ground up.

Apart from these technical skills I practiced new methodologies: Surveys, interviews and participant observation - these skills are definitely useful in my future design and research practice. Using reflective methods I tried to refine my execution of the techniques after every workshop in order to achieve the best possible results.

Apart from these, rather concrete results, the travels and conduction of workshops in various cultural contexts have given rise to many more learning experiences, some of which I am not able to fully express yet. One of the profoundest experiences of this yearlong work is the feeling of having accomplished a project of unforeseen size and impact.

VII.1.2 Transferability of the study and its results

This work focused on the impacts of one specific mobile application onto user’s experience and behavior in public space. Now I will look at the generalizability of this case study. For that I first consider the framework of digital mobile media:

Digital mobile media is a broad concept including media used on all digital mobile technologies. Digital mobile technologies range from the first digital punch cards developed in the 18th century to control textile looms ‣1‣1 Figure 84 and traditional portable cellphones to CD-ROMs, external hard drives and USBs. More recently mobile technologies have become equaled with smartphones, but Farman has argued that the terms mobile media and mobile technologies are far older than commonly thought (2012, 1): The chisel can be understood the first mobile tool to produce media. Another fundamental change took place when writing on papyrus was discovered: Media became transportable.

Figure 84: First digital mobile mediuM. Digital punch card

Since mobile digital media is such a broad concept I will concentrate on smartphone applications for my investigation of the transferability of the outcomes of this study.

The generalizability of the results of my case study is facilitated by the methodology, which I described in detail in Chapter II. Since the methods for achieving my results are documented, they can be applied to other smartphone applications or even other activities in public spaces.

The focus of this work was on the influences a digital mobile application has onto public space. The outcomes of the research show that there are numerous ways in which the Urban Alphabets app influences different aspects of public space: For example, by raising users’ awareness for details usually remaining unnoticed the smartphone app alters users’ perceived space and frequently also their acted space. When a designer wants to achieve a similar goal to that of the Urban Alphabets application she can therefore think about the aspects of public space applied in this thesis: perceived, conceived, and acted space. By altering an individual of these facets, public space changes for the user. However, after conducting this case study I conclude modifying several aspects simultaneously strengthens the effect. Thus, users’ are more likely to actively realize the change.

Richard Sennett has shown that the body has already become passive as part of a larger development and new city ideal during the 18th century. The Urban Alphabets workshops have shown that the application holds the potential to re-connect city dwellers and their physical environments. The alienating practices of the derivé and la fête described by Lefebvre and other authors (Highmore 2002) could offer another approach to this.

Additionally I formulated recommendations for developing smartphone applications with the users’ physical surroundings in mind, which are presented below. These recommendations should not be understood as how-to-guidelines but rather as an attempt to generalize the results of this case study. The recommendations concentrate on considerations for the starting phase of such a process, rather than the production stage.

Recommendations for developing smartphone applications with the users’ physical surroundings in mind

Digital mobile applications aiming to change public space for the user positively…

… should provide a pleasurable, enjoyable experience.

To encourage long-term participation but also initial curiosity the activity encouraged should be enjoyable for the user.

… should be easily accessible.

The mobile application should be accessible in the respective stores. Ideally the app would function on all major mobile digital platforms, but this is certainly not always possible.

… should be easy to engage in.

The actions required by the application should be easy enough to be incorporated into everyday life. For example, writing a long text on a smartphone takes a lot of effort and therefore usually raises the barrier for participation unproportionally.

… should aim at a concrete outcome.

In order to encourage a longer-term use of the mobile application, users often need to feel personal value in using the application. In the case of Urban Alphabets the outcome is visible and sharable, which encourages a sense of usefulness for the user.

… should distribute users’ attention between screen time and time with awareness for the physical surroundings.

Instead of 100% attention on the screen, the users’ attention should be divided between screen time and time with awareness for the physical surroundings. The exact distribution of involvement depends on the project and individual users.

… could focus on the uniqueness of a place but stay general enough to be used in different places.

The Urban Alphabets project focuses on a very particular element, letters, which can be found in places worldwide. In contrast, another app could also focus on a single place if aimed at a very small audience. In this case it is important to consider the expense of the development of such an application compared to the range in which it is being employed.

… could encourage new behaviors in public space / change acted space (e.g., encourage to collect trash, help strangers, listen to the environment).

These behaviors should be within the range of the socially accepted, since otherwise the participant’s/user’s experience might turn into a negative sense.

… could focus on details often unnoticed / change perceived space (e.g., sounds, colors, shapes, patterns, materials).

The research on the Urban Alphabets project has shown letters are a good example because they are common knowledge in most parts of the world, combine different aspects (shapes, colors, materials) and can be employed for something subjectively useful for the user (writing words).

In the development phase of a project aiming to reconnect users with their physical surroundings good practices from the general field of smartphone application development should be utilized. Special attention has to be paid to user testing in early phases of the project. This is to verify the intended effect the smartphone app has onto users. Contrary to Kjeldskof, Skov, Als and Høegh (2004), who argued that user testing of context-aware mobile systems in the field has little added value, I think that an application aiming to sensitize the user for her physical surroundings has to be tested in the field. The results that Kjeldskof, Skov, Als and Høegh present in their paper relate to usability issues, which could be found in both realistic lab settings and the field. However, in case of mobile applications aiming to reconnect users with public spaces identifying usability issues is not the main goal of the user testing. Instead, it aims to validate the effects the application has onto user’s public space perception and behavior.

Lastly, it should be noted that this thesis has to be understood as the first in a series of case studies to examine the influence smartphone applications potentially have onto public spaces. Therefore the recommendations for developing similar applications are preliminary. They can be employed in and will be modified after the next case study. Similarly their applicability to other fields of New Media, such as installations or urban screens, has to be tested in future case studies.

VII.2 Looking forward: What’s next?

VII.2.1 The future of Urban Alphabets

During the last two years the Urban Alphabets project has developed far beyond the initial expectations. When I presented the idea for this thesis in Medialab’s thesis seminar in January 2013 the intention was to use the current prototype at the time (v1) to explore the impact of the application. But even though my personal expectations have been exceeded, the project is continuing and a few paths for the future development should be mentioned here:

Urban Alphabets will be presented in two new cities: Between May and September 2015 an exhibition setup, a workshop and an outdoor projection are planned at the Museum of Moscow, Russia. Secondly, in June 2015 Urban Alphabets will be shown as part of the Musara Mix neighborhood festival in Jerusalem, Israel ‣2‣2 Figure 5.

Apart from these confirmed shows and workshops I consider the future monetization of the project. Two options have been revealed during the last year:

Educational institutions have been particularly interested in using Urban Alphabets for teaching literacy to young children. In April 2015 I will be discussing this in more detail and investigate if the educational sector is willing to act as a client for the future development of Urban Alphabets. Several Finnish schools have shown their interest to participate in such a process and highlighted that the training of teachers to use Urban Alphabets as an educational tool needs to be part of the collaboration.

Secondly, in-app purchases could be integrated into the next version (v3) of the Urban Alphabets application. The user feedback for v2 has highlighted additional useful features in two categories: features for the smartphone apps, and features for the website. The overall idea is that the elements already present in the current prototype remain free of charge but additional features can be used for a small payment.

Intended new features of the next prototype (v3)

The applications itself will be gamified: The user scores points for uploading letters. These points can then be used to download other people’s letters and reuse them to write own postcards. These points can also be purchased for money and possibly by watching short, targeted advertisings.

The application should include the following new features:

The website will have the following extended features:

Another way to look at the future of Urban Alphabets is to refer to the commercialization of photographic letter art projects introduced in Chapter III. One promising option is the further development and promotion of Urban Alphabets magnets ‣3‣3 Figure 85. Currently the magnet boxes consist of 42 magnets of a particular city. The images used for the magnets are taken from the Urban Alphabets database. There has been demand during the exhibition in Liverpool and also several project supporters have received magnet boxes as presents or on demand. Currently the magnets still need to be cut by hand, while the boxes are lasercut in Aalto University’s Fablab. If I can find a way to individually produce these magnets faster than by hand, personal magnet boxes based on a user’s uploads could definitely be a way to promote Urban Alphabets in future.

Figure 85: Urban Alphabets magnets box (front: inside, back: outside)

Several users have asked me to expand the supported mobile operating systems. However, the paper-based survey results show that 95% of the workshop attendees use Android or iOS smartphones ‣4‣4 Digital appendix 3-5. Similarly the International Data Corporation and also the information technology research company Gartner Inc. report that the Android and iOS platforms account for 96% of the smartphone sales in the third quarter 2014 (International Data Corporation 2015; Gartner, Inc. 2015). These numbers clearly show that expanding to Windows Phone or BlackBerry OS is not required for a niche project like Urban Alphabets.

VII.2.2 Personal future in an emerging field of research

As it has been stated multiple times, this thesis is to be understood as a the first in a series of case studies to explore the potential influence mobile media can have onto users’ connection to public space. The underlying principle of this work is a positive approach to new technologies and New Media hypothesizing that new practices need to be developed in order to exploit the opportunities of smartphone applications. The example of Urban Alphabets has shown that such an approach can be fruitful and preliminary recommendations for a corresponding future practice have been developed in this work. However, additional case studies should be conducted in order to explore the field of spatiality of public space altered by the use of mobile digital technologies in more detail.

Geocaching might offer a fruitful practice here. Geocaching is a modern form of a treasure hunt, where the seeker searches for a typically waterproof container with a logbook based on the geolocation coordinates provided by the hider. Geocaching is a popular existing practice28, which encourages users to explore their physical surroundings in a different way. Geocaches are often well hidden and, for example, puzzles need to be solved in order to find the cache. I consider geocaching worth a closer investigation because, similarly to the goals I have stated for this work, it alienates users from their everyday surroundings and lets them re-experience public spaces. As an existing practice, investigating geocaching as a research subject will not enable to test the recommendations for developing an own application produced as part of this work. However, it could provide deeper insights into the changes taking place in the different aspects of public space and therefore the recommendations could be refined as a new working hypothesis.

Furthermore, to test my recommendations for developing smartphone apps aiming to re-link users’ with public spaces one could directly apply them in a project.

I want to highlight again that the idea of reconnecting people with their physical surroundings inherently shows a distinct view of society. My view of urban life is close to what Martijn de Waal calls the republican city ideal: The city “provides the freedom to choose between divergent ways of life, but at the same time city dwellers share responsibility for the city as a whole.” (2014, 10) Thus, city dwellers are obliged to take part in urban society. I believe in order to maintain urban areas as the places we want to live in, we should encourage the ideals of city life: Cities are the places where we meet strangers, and gather for political, or other occasions. They are the places were society faces itself and insofar it is important that every city dweller takes part in public space making. This is the context in which my effort for a connection between city inhabitants and their physical cities should be understood.

Personally, I want to continue debating this approach, because I remain thinking that there is potential to be realized concerning digital urban media and their role in the making of public spaces. I believe practices for alienating users from their everyday experiences are a good starting point and therefore a deeper investigation of the writings of sociologists like Lefebvre but also the Surrealists will be helpful.

This thesis aimed to investigate how smartphone applications alter public space from the user’s perspective. It hypothesized that digital mobile media can enrich user’s experiences of public space if designed carefully for that purpose.

Theoretically the writing emphasized that the importance of public space is established only through the presence of people. Thus, the users of the smartphone application became the focus of this work and three major aspects of the analysis were established: perceived, acted and conceived space. Though the concepts are not always easily separated, the categorization proofed useful for the purpose of this thesis.

A prototype of the smartphone application Urban Alphabets was developed as part of this thesis in order to examine the field of spatiality of public spaces altered by digital mobile media. The prototype was employed in 17 workshops, where participant observation, group interviews and surveys were utilized to gather the material for this research. The analysis of the data has shown that Urban Alphabets clearly influences public space in all its facets: It causes users to pay attention to details (perceived space) and make unexpected efforts to capture the best possible photos (acted space). Even if unknowingly, the users take part in creating a cultural map. Since mapping is an act traditionally limited to professionals, many users take part in it for their first time (conceived space). Several other aspects the Urban Alphabets project implies for the users have been discussed: For example, it has been argued that Urban Alphabets provides an incentive to withdraw from the boring aspects of everyday life. Thus, the application can be understood as a strategy to defamiliarize the everyday. Additionally ideas for the future development of the Urban Alphabets project have been collected as part of the workshops.

In the last chapter I transferred the outcomes of the case study onto smartphone applications in general and developed recommendations for designers of apps aiming to re-connect users with their physical surroundings. I argued that the importance of such an approach lies in city life itself: Public space is the place where society faces itself and employing the republican idea of the city, every city dweller is obliged to take part in its making. Thus, re-connecting users with physical public spaces is one step to realizing this ideal scenario. This work has explored the role smartphone applications can play in this process. Its main contribution is therefore a well-researched case study proofing the potential of digital mobile media for this practice. The recommendations developed in this work should be understood as a new working hypothesis to facilitate the process of developing smartphone apps for re-connecting users with physical public spaces with the users’ context in mind. Such applications can, in the words of a workshop participant, “open your eyes to the details around us that often go unnoticed” or, as another participant states, these apps enable us “to see and feel the city with another time, a time to think.”

28 There are more than 2.5 million registered geocaches around the world. (Groundspeak, Inc. 2015)

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