Urban Technology at University of Michigan week -11

The inscrutability of 5G infrastructure + 3 questions for Jacqueline Lu

In an urban environment, everything you see is the result of countless decisions and actions taken by numerous people. The height of a curb, width of a street streets, quality of sidewalks, composition of facades, character of signage, presence of plants, angle of a bench’s seatback, texture of a wall, specific droop of a power line—all decisions. All this effort produces the possibility of anonymity which is unique to urban life.

Ever spent a moment on the sidewalk or in a train station watching the world flow by without being noticed? What allowed you hide in plain sight is the overwhelming crush of details that everyone else around you was taking in. Though you may not have noticed, hiding with you were also anonymous urban rectangles—control boxes, sensors, transmitters, and the like. This week we dive into the etiquette of being anonymous by poking at one such example: 5G infrastructure.

Hello! I’m Bryan Boyer, Director of the Urban Technology degree at University of Michigan. If you’re new here, try this 90 second video introduction. Have questions about any of this? Hit reply and let us know.

👀 Reading the Street

In the anonymous streets of Detroit are anonymous workers installing anonymous infrastructure, including the tall pylon depicted below, which recently materialized out of thin air. Longtime readers may remember a prior newsletter about a fiberoptic installation, which now makes sense in light of the photo below. The fiber was connecting this and other 5g transmitters to the upstream internet.

I’m know a thing or two about digital infrastructure but did not know what to make of this new neighbor, so I crowdsourced opinions (thanks Sarah Williams, Jascha Franklin-Hodge, and Varun) and the consensus is that the rectangular white boxes are millimeter wave transmitters and the conical brown thing on top is an LTE transmitter. All of this sits atop a pylon with a base that is six feet high and much larger than the typical lamp post. It’s a chonk—and an inscrutable one unless you are a real expert in the subject of connectivity.

Seems like the people who installed this (and the civil servants who define the standards for installation) predicted that passersby may be curious about the new addition to the neighborhood, because they posted signage on the pylon… 20 feet in the air. Helpful for Jolly Green Giant and any particularly literate hummingbirds out there, but not so useful for anyone else.

The base is perforated and large—perhaps 2ft in diameter and 6ft tall or higher—and features hinges that hint something lives inside. It begs for questions. What is this thing? What is it doing? Who put it here? Who owns it? If this rather large surface is going to occupy the sidewalk, it could at least be so kind as to introduce itself to the neighborhood. This calls for some Photoshop.

Could the pylon communicate its purpose by describing the things to which it connects people?

Or perhaps more subtly indicating a keyword is just enough to let passersby do their own searching online at a later date:

If you looked closely at the first mockup above you saw across the middle:


This is where it starts to get interesting. Infrastructure may indeed need to be pitched to the public to be accepted, but in addition to pitching, how about empowering individuals to understand, debate, and make decisions about infrastructure? And particularly digital infrastructures which are new and either invisible or nearly so. In a city full with detail, surveillant technologies like person tracking billboards, phone tracking pedestrian counters, and face tracking cameras are too often happy to elide into the anonymity of the street. You can’t debate what you don’t know about.

Does this pylon contain anything that tracks the number of pedestrians who pass by on a daily basis? If so, where does that data go and how does it get used? Does the device have a camera? If so, where are the images from the camera stored (locally or in the cloud), for how long, and how are they used? Are the police able to access them? Are these questions sounding familiar?

These are essential questions and responding would take so much space that if you tried to answer every relevant question on the pylon it would look like the image below. Are you ready for a world where every pylon, bench, and segment of sidewalk has a terms of service and privacy policy?

Jacqueline Lu and Patrick Keenan are getting ahead of this question by developing something called Digital Transparency in the Public Realm (DTPR). Originated at Sidewalk Labs in Toronto, the DTPR project proposed a “standard that enables transparency, accountability, and control for people.” The initiative has since lept out of Sidewalk and is being carried fourth as an open source project.

The idea, outlined in a design guidelines document, is that a set of icons (not unlike the ubiquitous US DOT Pictograms) describe the purpose of data collection, technologies used to collect it, who is accountable for this, and offers a venue for feedback. Add that together and you get something like this:

Even though they’re quick mockups, these images are compelling in that they create a glimpse of an extensible system that communicates the basics of digital infrastructure in the public realm. Beyond that, DTPR insists that feedback is important, so it’s not just a one way communication (like the “take it or leave it” stance with which terms of service are delivered) but an invitation to conversation and further learning.

Is the question of digital transparency solved with signage? To think about that, another quick experiment in Photoshop…

Transparency is important, but does in itself result in civic-minded decisions, of course. Jackie, one of the creators, is vividly aware of this and insistent that transparency is the first step among accountability, agency, and trust.

One of the things that’s so great about this project is that it does not pretend to “solve” the question of transparency. With a lightweight set of icons, standards, and examples, DTPR makes it easy to see that the question of making digital infrastructure legible is critically important and really hard. Sounds like an invitation for enterprising urban technology students at the University of Michigan.

To learn more about these possibilities, we sent a couple questions to Jackie, now at the venerable Mozilla Foundation.

🎙 3 Questions for Jacqueline Lu

Jacqueline Lu is formally trained in ecology and conservation biology, and now focuses on aspects of data science related to the public realm. At NYC Parks, she spearheaded the largest participatory street tree mapping project in U.S. history, among other activities. If that’s not impressive, how about this: Jackie had a day named after her by New York City’s Mayor when she left the public service after 20 years to return to her hometown of Toronto.


Q. What’s your favorite city and why?

I love cities for different reasons but if I had to pick one it would be New York City—all five boroughs of it—for its amazing heterogeneity of people, culture, built form, ecology, and so many [other] dimensions. I was lucky early on in my career at NYC Parks to have had a big fieldwork component and the role took me literally to every corner of the city to consider in some way the intersection of nature and human activity. I have never experienced the diversity of another city as thoroughly as I did NYC's.

Q. What is Digital Transparency in the Public Realm (DTPR)?

DTPR is an open-source “system-to-people” communication standard for transparency and accountability around digital technology in places. At its core, DTPR is a standard dictionary of concepts for digital tech and data practices, and an associated set of icons that express those concepts in a visual way.  This taxonomy of concepts builds up a people-legible description of sensors, systems in places, that can then be made available to folks in a variety of ways, [including] a physical sign, a digital feedback channel, or a conversation with a chatbot. Overall, the aspiration is to get to better interfaces for digital systems—where “better” is defined as useful and trustworthy.

Q. Why is it important to make (nearly) invisible things like sensors and data processing visible on or near physical devices in the city?

It’s important because people should be able to be informed participants in dialogues about technology in the city. There are data collection devices everywhere, collecting data about us, our environment, and the systems that we rely on, but there is very little transparency on the purposes they serve, the data they collect, and who is accountable. Lack of knowledge about these things is a fundamental barrier for people to even begin to understand the benefits, the risks, and the trade-offs that [they are being asked to make]. This is something that I started thinking about years ago when I was at NYC Parks, with a smart bench pilot that helped measure park usage. How do you let people know what’s happening, and give them a way to ask questions and follow-up? 

Solving this is important for many reasons, but these are the two I personally feel are most important: 1) to respect people’s fundamental rights to understand and have agency over how data about them and the places they frequent are used and impact their lives; and 2) to enable communities to really benefit from technologies.

I’m an optimist and believe that technology can help in so many different ways, but we won’t ever get there if people can’t trust that outcomes are being achieved and that associated risks are worth it. It’s a bit like open data, just extended to the concept of physical spaces—make data available so that there can be inspectability, accountability.

Q. If you were President of the Universe and could make anyone be the stewards of DTPR going forward, who would you ask to have ownership of this work?

My hope is that DTPR would be openly stewarded by a community of organizations and people who are involved in using it, as part of their practice of using, deploying and designing technology. I feel less strongly that it is specifically a public sector organization in the lead (there are useful global standards that are not led by government) as I think the key to legitimacy will be in how the community governance is designed and carried out. Before we can get there though, we need partners interested in helping get DTPR out into the world, testing and seeing if it works. If it does, then the work begins to figure out how [DTPR] can be sustained and improved over time in a collaborative way.


📦 Mayo Nissen’s site Invisible Info is an index of anonymous urban rectangles.

😷 Different signage, also important: #worksafe offers free posters promoting COVID safety in English and Hindi.

🍃 Plants are a thing that I wish were more legible, and How Many Plants makes them so in a beautiful way.

🌁 So you Want to do an Infrastructure Project? describes learnings from other countries that can inform the infrastructure ramp up here in the US, according to author Alon Levy. Weekend reading.

🇹🇼 William Felker is documenting ambient landscape in Taiwan and on the platform futureland.tv, which is a promising space.

This week: Event with admitted students! Drones research!
Alumni Council Talk! 🏃‍♂️