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03.15.07

The Social Life of Wireless Urban Spaces : new research project
I finally made a few minor updates to my webpage, mostly to include a description of my new research project. Here is the detailed description:

A growing number of cities have announced plans or are in the early stages of deploying municipal broadband wireless networks; Muni Wi-Fi. These projects promise untethered Internet access in private, public, and semi-public spaces. While there is a significant body of research addressing whether fixed Internet use increases, decreases, or supplements the ways people engage in residential and workplace settings, few studies have addressed how the use of wireless broadband in public spaces influences social life. It is unclear if wireless Internet use in public spaces will facilitate greater engagement with co-present others, or encourage social disengagement. This study investigates how mobile technologies, focusing on Wi-Fi use but not excluding mobile phones, portable music players, etc., impact the use of public space in select North American cities. Updating William H. Whyte’s classic study of The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, this project is based on the analysis of video and field notes from ethnographic studies of nine Wi-Fi enabled public spaces in Philadelphia, New York, San Francisco, and Toronto (preliminary). Field sites include public parks, plazas, and street corners. The goal is to identify how mobile devices augment local interactions and people’s social networks more broadly. This work is integrated into previous research that has focused on socially responsible design of public space, the growth of privatism, public safety, pro- and anti-social behavior, surveillance, and privacy.

This summer research assistants will be deployed to the nine field sites we have identified in four cities. From May-July they will be unobtrusively observing interactions for apx. 50 hours in each space. In addition, each site will be videotaped from a “birds eye” view. All days of the week and day light hours will be included in the sample. The resulting video footage and field notes will be coded and analyzed for systematic behavior with the aim of contrasting users of mobile technologies with non-users. We also hope to combine our video and field notes with computer logs of how often people use Wi-Fi and what they do online within our observation spaces, and field notes and video from previous public space studies. The resulting analysis will be used to: 1) draw conclusions about the possible impact of Muni Wi-Fi on social networks and public participation, and 2) generate recommendations for the deployment of Muni Wi-Fi and design of urban public space to balance privacy, mutual surveillance, public safety, the opportunity for serendipitous encounters, and other pro-social behaviors.
Thu Mar 15, 2007 @ 3:14:45 pm

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