Joint Road Forward – a new project

It is well known that in the immediate future, cities will continue to see growth across any of the given parameters: size, demographics, pollution, economy, etc. With this future scenario and with the advent of more data collection, we wanted to look at tools and methods that would be more inclusive of people during the urban planning stage.

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It is in this context that we recently started a new project to look at the issue of mobility in cities. The project is a collaboration with International Institute of Information Technology, Bangalore , TU Delft, The Netherlands and KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden, focused on mobility in Indian and European cities. For this study we have selected Bangalore and the Randstad region in The Netherlands.

In this project we wanted to take a broader view of mobility and study how it is connected with the overall city in terms of livelihoods, commerce, livability and well-being. We plan to review the capability of current planning methods to incorporate the broader definition of mobility, and, to design new tools and methodologies to improve upon them.  

We are in the initial stages of our work which began a few months ago with a discussion on transport planning. We started studying the data from transport surveys. Transport is a key activity for livelihood (irrespective of location) in a city and often is an inevitable part of our expenditure when our work and home are located further away. This allows us to look at current approaches to transport planning.

Here I have to mention the that we stand on the shoulder of giants, i.e., transport planning already has a number of approaches to model travel in a city. One can look at speed (read: travel time), cost, comfort (or quality of service), etc. while designing transport infrastructure for a city. We are currently in the process of reviewing current planning methodologies.

We find that transport surveys indicated that there are groups of people who get excluded during transportation planning. Studying all the commuters allows us to create an inclusive map of travel demand across Bangalore. We will soon publish some of our methods and initial data. We have published an article on an approach to modelling people and their transport needs at APCOSEC’16 scheduled to be held in Bangalore in November 2016. A pre-publication copy and our presentation which are being prepared will be available on our website soon.

A human centric look at electricity consumption and design towards a “Smart Campus”

It was almost a year ago when we concluded a project named “The Smart Campus Simulation Tool”. We are looking to release the simulation tool to open source. In this post, we wanted to explore the problem context which informed our design.

To us a Smart Campus represented a socio-technical system that would be “malleable” enough for us to achieve our objectives. We approached it to be a socio-technical system, the technology (the adaptive sensor based control system) has to work with the social context of an academic institute. At the end of the day, people have to accept and be willing to make changes to their lifestyles.

We wanted to look at the issue of electricity consumption for the IIIT-Bangalore. The institute had invested in a fair amount of energy saving equipment such as solar panels and more efficient water heating systems. But, they were not clear about the eventual savings in energy, the electricity consumption patterns or if there was a strategy to reduce the overall consumption in the campus.

An overview of campus simulation model.
An overview of campus simulation model.

Consumption of electricity is a difficult notion to comprehend and convey. For example, when a switch is thrown, does one wonder where the electricity is generated from? It may so happen that a forest is being cleared in Chattisgarh so that you may be able to spend an extra hour on Xbox. Furthermore, we have an inherent expectation (if you grow up with some privilege,) that electricity “has” to flow if a switch is turned on. People who have no access to electricity are vulnerable in many ways to the extent that their social mobility may suffer due to lack of electricity. People who have intermittent access or pay huge bills are also cautions about consumption. Nevertheless, we seldom question the source of generation. 

Causal relationships like the one above between your consumption and environmental degradation are common and are uncomfortable (but true). Such examples try to guilt you into changing your consumption behaviour. However, it is not an easy to make lifestyle changes nor is it easy to ponder on the utility before doing everyday mundane tasks. Responsible use of electricity requires changes to behavioural and cultural practices as well as upgrades to the technical systems around us. Looking at both social and technological aspects was the cornerstone of our approach. 

We tried to look at the campus as a location which enables different people to achieve their academic goals. People in the campus perform various activities that allow them to achieve this goal. We looked at activities that consumed electricity. We then developed a simulation tool that assumed the use of sensor -based control and behavioural modification to try and check if a technology-assisted behavioural change was possible. The results of the simulation would be the base to design a serious game. The game in conjunction with sensor-based control systems would address both social and technological aspects of the issue.

Our simulation mainly consists of:

  1. a model for generating activities (explanation for what this activity means below) for various actors present on the campus,
  2. an agent based model for minimising electricity usage while keeping the comfort level of individuals at an acceptable level.

We define an activity as any action that an individual takes during the course of one’s day in the campus. A good way to model an activity is to collect detailed information using “energy dairies”. As a small academic institute, the campus had limited types of actors. We therefore chose to use a survey-based approach to collect information on daily routines. We conducted a survey to understand various daily routines for all the individuals on the campus. We also conducted interviews with some of the administrative and housekeeping staff.  We used this information to create a model for the generation of activities for various actors on the campus.

The smart campus simulation setup.
The smart campus simulation setup.

To model the “smart” systems of the campus, we created a control mechanism based on autonomous agents trying to collectively bring down the electricity consumption of the campus while keeping track of inhabitant’s comfort levels. We modelled the rooms and work areas as the autonomous agents. Each such agent was responsible for the operation of various devices that would consume electricity. It was then tasked with the objectives of minimising usage of certain devices by:

  1. negotiating the electricity consumption with other rooms (agents).
  2. Directing uses to use more common areas.
  3. Restricting when possible, the use of high power consumption devices such as air-conditioners and elevators.

In all of the above cases the it is assumed that the individual can override the agents, thus, keeping the human at the centre of the system.  (This also allows us to collect information on what sort of activities will not be compromised in the name of energy savings. ) However, a denial from the system to allow the operation of devices resulted in a decrease in the satisfaction of the inhabitants. The agents were asked to minimise the use of electricity with as little discomfort as possible for the inhabitants.

Once the models were ready we created a simulation tool and calibrated it based on the data collected by the campus for over a year on a daily basis. We could then play out scenarios such as:

  • What happens when we want to aggressively minimise consumption
  • or, what happens when the comfort for the inhabitant is paramount and
  • finally, what happens when we set a electricity consumption target for ourselves?
Calibration of the simulation, Real Data: Red, Simulated Data: Blue
Calibration of the simulation, Real Data: Red, Simulated Data: Blue

 

Results from using a aggressive savings scenario.
Results from using an aggressive savings scenario

 

Results from allowing a maximum savings scenario.
Results from allowing a maximum savings scenario
Results from using a popular choice for devices, scenario.
Results from using a popular choice for devices, scenario

It was very interesting for us to see the results and present it to the inhabitants of the campus. We are now trying to work with students to create and deploy the sensor systems at the campus. We see a potential for extending this tool to include larger spatial/network levels such as a neighbourhood or a set of neighbourhoods as opposed to a campus. We are also looking at including multiple sources of electricity, given that decentralised power and micro-grids can become popular. Furthermore, we are also exploring the possibility to include other resources such as water consumption and sewage as well into the analysis. For a more detailed description to the tool and to some other people doing similar work please refer to our paper “Krishna, Harsha, Onkar Hoysala, Krishna G. Murali, Bharath M. Palavalli, and Eswaran Subrahmanian. “Modelling technology, policy and behaviour to manage electricity consumption.” In Humanitarian Technology Conference (R10-HTC), 2014 IEEE Region 10, pp. 40-45. IEEE, 2014.”. We hope to produce and publish more results soon. In the meantime please free to check our tool at:The Smart Campus Simulation Tool

[Talk][Research in Play] A short history of how Design sees us.

Sruthi Krishnan will be presenting her talk at FoV on 31st July, 2015. The following is a synopsis for the talk.

In 2006, Time magazine chose ‘You’ as the person of the year. ‘Yes, you. You control the Information Age. Welcome to your world,’ Time assured us. Are we all users? Do we share a one-dimensional relationship of utility with technology and the material world around us? Or is the relationship more complex?

The field whose sole focus is the relationship between us and the material world around us is Design. Be it artifacts, symbols, services, or environments, we humans have designed the world around us. And Design, the study of the what, how, why, and who of designing has struggled with the tug of war between a ‘one size fits all’ perspective of the world where we are all users on the one hand and different dimensions of diversity on the other.

In the discussion on Friday, we will first undertake a short history of how Design sees us and how it has (and not) grappled with the question of diversity over the years. Using this history as a background, the discussion will introduce how other disciplines such as cognitive science and linguistics too are grappling the same questions and how Design can provide a new way of seeing, where we can embrace diversity.

Fields of View at Anthill Hacks 2015

Anthill Hacks was one of the first open events I attended where we were free to propose and conduct sessions to a diverse set of audiences, with very few rules. The location of the event was extremely inviting too. We were going to play our games and hack on the picturesque and peaceful hills of Devarayanadurga. (This was also the first time I was going to drive on a highway – the fancy Bangalore – Tumkur connector.)

Kshiraja and I managed to reach the location by 10:30 in the morning while driving through peaceful state forests. It was a sunny but cool morning and the conference hall of the event overlooked the hills.

Anthill Hacks Event Location
Anthill Hacks Event Location
Conference room overlooking the hills
Conference room overlooking the hills

Dinesh (from Servelots) was our host and was there to greet us. He explained the events planned for the day and the overall objectives for the events.

The village we were at, and the surrounding villages are in a fairly remote location with very little digital communication to the outside world except for an occasional signal from a BSNL tower. Dinesh and his team have been studying methods and history of community content generation and dissemination as part of their research, including oral transfer of information, folk art and music, etc. He stated that these art forms and traditions served a similar purpose as the Internet in spreading information and local community and cultural development.

At the event Dinesh explained next to an exhibit of a colourful print from West Bengal, the tradition employed for content delivery in the form of prints and folk songs. He explained that it was common in small communities in West Bengal for local artists and folk singers to be employed to create prints and come up with songs to best convey everyday events, news and information to individual families. These songs would differ depending on information and intended audience and was ideal for the differently literate audience. Not everyone could read and write. We then discussed at what point we arrive at a definition of “literate” in a country where we had traditions for oral transfer of knowledge from one generation to another.

Dinesh’s team is involved in leveraging technology for mass communication and community development while promoting the use of open-source and freely accessible communication. His team is building a mesh network in the location to connect the remote village at the foot of the hill with other villages in the area and to the Internet itself using a gateway. Due to the remoteness of the villages and a small customer base, not all telecom companies provide coverage in the area.  It is interesting that Dinesh and his team are promoting open-source decentralised methods for connecting the last mile when there is a bitter argument going on nationally about Net-Neutrality in India.

Apart from the mesh network, he explained the use of community radio. He said that the challenge for community radio operators was the ability to respond to the overwhelming amount of participation. One of the tasks for the team is to develop possible apps to handle this process and open up community radio at the location.

Community Radio Setup
Dinesh explains the community radio setup

What is further interesting is how he intends to use all of this art and technology to demonstrate community action. He led us to a location where he had laid out various maps of the region on the floor. The current Open Street Map (OSM) of the area shows very little information except for the major roads. He contrasted that with an extremely old map of the area that was prepared to map the sources of tax collection. He now intends to use a group of a hundred school children, scheduled to arrive very soon, to map out the surroundings to make the area visible on an open platform.

Local Maps
Local Maps
Old Tax Map
Old Tax Map

On to our game sessions. Kshiraja and I proceeded to have some locally prepared poha and managed to get an audience to play a session of our “Rubbish! Kaasu Kasa” game based on the garbage situation in Bangalore. The audience included a mix of artists, open technology hackers, engineers, musicians, sculptors and researchers from around India. We had an interesting session of the game where the participants were involved in heated strategic discussions to do something about Bangalore’s garbage problem.

After the game session we were able to spend some time with Renu Mukunda, a veteran researcher in the area of Urban Poverty. We compared notes and discussed at length about each others’ research and notes.  We had a quick, simple and a delicious lunch of palav (not pulav!), before it was time to play again.

Kshiraja and I managed to rally another group of players to play a session of our City Game. This was definitely one of the most interesting sessions we have had. First and foremost we were playing a game session on the face of a gentle slope of a hill, under an open sky, overlooking all the hills and villages in the area. Second, we had an interesting mix of audience from researchers, artists to kids. And finally this was one of the first sessions that I had to do the briefing and de-briefing sessions in three languages, English, Kannada and Hindi. (Although I wish I could speak Bangla and Tamil in order to have communicated better with the audience).

City Game on a hill
City Game on a hill
City Game on a hill 2
City Game on a hill

It was an interesting city with fish markers, art institutes, schools and low income housing. It was agreed that it is somewhat a small city to live in. Dinesh was enthusiastically building garbage dumps, breweries and canteens all over the city.

We managed to complete the game just before the evening showers hit. It was time to get back to my thesis and Monday Morning Meeting in Bangalore. We thanked Dinesh and promised that we would return to the beautiful venue again very soon.

And finally, the frustration of Bangalore traffic hit us as it took more time for us to get home from the border of Bangalore than it took for us to travel to Bangalore from a different city! But at least we got to get away from the city and play at a beautiful session at the event.

What is a Smart City?

The Government of India has recently launched major initiatives for building a large number of smart cities all around the country. Discussions on smart cities in India are generating a lot of debate around what it means to be a smart city.

During such discussions citizens are represented as residents who live in the city, perform various activities and are passive recipients of the city’s services. The interactions between them and the city is often reduced to an economical or a transactional one, without acknowledging the complexity of the relationship. Everyone is assumed to be a homogeneous ‘user’, and thus it becomes easy for us to imagine new cities with infrastructure, autonomous and automatic systems, regional plans, lots of glass and sensors, landscaped gardens, and various portrayals one is familiar through brochures. We are then led to estimate and imagine how existing systems would operate better by reducing the amount of time, costs, size, complexity, etc. In the race to make cities more “efficient”, we have not considered the implications of working towards a narrow definition of “efficiency”.

We fail to take into account the diversity around us, despite the popular cliché quoted about India as a highly diverse country with a diverse set of cultures, languages, and aspirations. We are diverse in terms of scale of urbanisation,  geographic size, economy and population. We also face inequality across the dimensions of economics, social stratification, and gender.

The current rhetoric on smart cities lack discussions on one or more of the above factors. Furthermore, the question of inequality and hence isolation of the poor from the city’s services is one of the problems facing established smart cities.

As we are poised at the cusp of establishing smart cities in India, we are presented with a unique opportunity. We can collectively imagine what it means to be a smart city for the Indian context, and build on that conception to design smart cities for different local Indian contexts.

What we then need is a process to elicit from citizens what their requirements and aspirations are for a smart city, which will then give us the base to design the appropriate city for a given location in the country. We may be able to use this method beyond India to define smart cities in other parts of the world or to evaluate existing ones.

Anthony Townsend in his book, Smart Cities, envisions a smart city where citizens if they wish are able to participate in the defining, design and governing of their city. What we call for are technologies that create processes that enable citizens to participate meaningfully in their city’s future.

The question then is, how do we collectively imagine what it means to be a smart city in the Indian context?

At Fields of View, we are designing initiatives for citizens to participate in defining, designing, and governing their city.

In an effort to understand how the current discourse on smart cities has shaped our understanding on Smart Cities, we have created a quick survey. The aim is to understand how we visualize a smart city and if we have a certain visual definition of the smart cities we would like to live in.

Please consider taking the survey here.

To know more, mail us at info at fieldsofview.in

References:

  1. Townsend, A. M. (2013). Smart cities: big data, civic hackers, and the quest for a new utopia. WW Norton & Company.

Game-elements and hacking board games

We were testing a prototype Android application, developed by our interns, Rufael and Mosa from Malmo, to help facilitate future City Game sessions. The application allows the facilitator to track game progress and visualise the session for the participants. The application is designed to be used with large groups and in game sessions where parameters such as natural resources are in play.

 

We had a session of the City Game to test the application, where the discussion revolved around facilitator and player interaction through game artefacts. During our post-game analysis, we discussed the importance of the intended ‘game-play‘ and how it is necessary to test each game-element. The Android application was introduced as a new game-element. We observed that due to the addition of this new game-element, the flow of the game was altered.

 

A ‘game-element‘ can be a physical item or a rule that helps us construct and propagate the game without disturbing the element of play. For example, in a board game pawns, tokens, game money, etc are game-elements. Similarly, in a virtual game, health indicators, waypoint markers, etc are game-elements. A game can make use of any number of game-elements in a given session but, it is critical to ensure that the given set of game-elements create meaningful ‘play‘. Too many elements and the game becomes too complex to follow while too little elements may result in loss of player interest. Therefore, each modification (addition/deletion) to game-elements has to be rigorously tested for consistency of game-play.

 

The Android application presents players of City Game with additional information. We have modified the City Game rules which incorporates this information to create a different style of play than the plain vanilla version.

 

We wanted to demonstrate this effect in a more practical manner. We created an impromptu game design session. We divided ourselves into teams of 2 and gave ourselves the following task:
Each team will choose a well known game and modify its elements. The modifications have to create a change in the game-play and the team needs to convince the others that the modified game would still be fun to play.

 

We came up with 4 modified games. I present my team’s entry below:

I worked with Mosa to create “Board Game Mutation – 0x1”. The basic idea was to make use of standard board games that is found in most households and modify the game rules to create a new game. The following items are required to play our mutated game:

No of players: 3 – 4 players

Game Elements

  1. A ‘Snakes (or chutes) and ladders’ board
  2. A deck of UNO card game
  3. Pawns from any of the above games, 4 pawns per player.

The Game

The snakes and ladder board is the main game board. Each player places 4 of their pawns on the board at start point. Each player must move all their pawns to the final goal. The first player to move all the pawns wins. Each player throws a standard six-sided die and picks a card from a shuffled UNO deck and places it on its face for all players to see. The player moves a pawn of his choice (one that has not reached its destination) on the board corresponding to the number indicated by the die.

The board is said to have two states. The default state in which all the snakes causes a pawn to demote to lower levels and all the ladders promote a pawn to higher levels, nearer to the goal. A second state called the compliment state can be triggered by a player who places a wild-card from the UNO deck. In a compliment state the snakes promote pawns and the ladders demote them. This state exists till another player finds a wild card from the deck.

 

Snakes and Ladders is a pure dice game and winning completely depends on chance. Our objective of the modification of the game-elements was to introduce a sense of strategy into the standard game-play of snakes and ladders. We added a new game-element, the chance for other players to sabotage the lead player by reversing the roles of how snakes and ladder behave. We also wanted to increase the time for which the new game would be played and hence we introduced four pawns per player.

 

During our discussions we argued that the introduction of sabotage changes the standard game of snakes and ladders from a chance based self-serving game to a more interactive one. However, there were concerns raised on the number of pawns, as it could possibly increase the game time by a large amount. There was also more practical concerns that two game kits were required to play this version of the game. A more rigorously rule system needs to be developed such as when can you display the card, immediately or latter, should the cards be resolved first or the board? In the end we decided that the changes required player testing for at least the game-length.

Of games, gaming simulation and piracy in games

One of my fellow researchers shared the following game with me:

http://www.greenheartgames.com/app/game-dev-tycoon/

Game Dev Tycoon™ is a business simulation game available for Windows, Mac and Linux as well as on the Windows 8 Store. In Game Dev Tycoon you replay the history of the gaming industry by starting your own video game development company in the 80s. Create best selling games. Research new technologies and invent new game types. Become the leader of the market and gain worldwide fans.

He found it really interesting,

“What happens when pirates play a game development simulator and then go bankrupt because of piracy?”: http://www.greenheartgames.com/2013/04/29/what-happens-when-pirates-play-a-game-development-simulator-and-then-go-bankrupt-because-of-piracy/
They ran an experiment where they released a pirated version of the game and saw how people reacted when during the simulation they ran out of money – because of piracy!

Interesting, yes. But the limitation of such games is that it is a game, as against a simulation.  An example of this effect is; most tycoon games simplify external effects as the more it is a simulation the less fun it can be. The tycoon style game play is a very popular design for  management/financial games (A close cousin is “Diner Dash” or “Farm Frenzy” which sheds light on logistics and functional parts of an organisation). Consider this, if you have played The Sims, you can find a job by simply using a computer in less than 20 seconds. But one can make an entire game out of the context of finding a job (in effect simulating the entire experience). Would you still be interested in playing The Sims if it simulates all the frustrations you experienced while finding a job?

Game Dev Tycoon simplifies the issues surrounding piracy and how it can be tackled to a great extent. Often the high price for ‘good’ games makes it inaccessible to a large audience. Some reasons for a high price may be:

  1. The game was developed using unrealistic targets. (Example: Duke Nukem Forever, no pun intended 🙂 )
  2. Games developed in mainstream  studios  Vs Indie studios

Some innovators in the field tackle piracy in the following ways  (instead of  slapping on a restrictive DRM):

  1. FTP (Free To Play) models offer a glimpse of the game before asking us to pay. The payment is usually a continuous nominal subscription versus a one time payment. The jury is still out on this. Example: LOTRO, Dungeons and Dragons, host or other games. Premium content for the players (enhancing their game-play and/or in game status) are also offered by such games.
  2. Innovative DRM systems in marketplaces  such as Steam and Uplay instead of an always on system (Example: The latest SimCity).
  3.   A low/high priced game followed by high/low paid DLCs (Downloadable Content). Example: Skyrim,  The Sims (Some DLCs for The Sims 3 is more expensive than the base game!).

Currently in Steam,  the beta version of the game is available at a lower price. The players test the game as they play beta versions and then get access to the full version for free when it is released. A very interesting experiment in reducing costs in the game development process and using the “crowd” for both testing and funding.