citizen data sets and twitter bot guards of public space

Robots have been firm supporters of the Occupy movement, taking up protest signs where human arms grew weary. Mechanical automation does not need to be the exclusive domain of the physical. Indeed, drawing attention to those public spaces that activist automatons occupied last year is really a job for online automation.

Introducing @OccupyPOPS, a Twitter bot that coordinates weekly mini-occupy movements at a different privately owned public space in New York City. Privately owned public space (POPS) is a city program that grants property developers increased density in exchange for publicly accessible outdoor and indoor spaces. In 2007 the City recognized the failures of the program and went about improving it with new regulations. The intended outcome of these changes was the increase of daytime public use of these spaces.

Privately Owned Public Spaces (2007)

City wants to see POPS occupied,

In September, Occupy Wall Street created the opposite problem when it mobilized a protest movement in Brookefield Properties’ Zuccoti Park. Suddenly the under-utilization problem of a privately owned public space became a problem of over-occupation. But how well are these spaces used? Where are they? And how can political discourse become a normal and acceptable activity within these spaces?

locations of privately-owned public spaces in manhattan

data from nycopendata

Readily available data on these spaces offer conflicting pictures of the spaces. According the City’s publicly available dataset on POPS there are just under 400 locations, but Bloomberg media says there are 500. Although City standards outline a variety of requirements that include the number of trees, seats, and contact information that are meant to be posted in these spaces, all these requirements are missing from the publicly available dataset.

OccupyPOPS seeks to draw more humans to privately-owned public spaces and to add public information about these space – combining automated social media methods with collaborative database development and Open Data sources. The automated twitter account algorithmically selects a location for the next Occupy movement from the City’s published dataset of POPS (see fig 1.). Throughout the week leading up to a mini-Occupy, the bot running the twitter account sends out messages reminding and encouraging followers to arrive at a particular time on the given date.

automated occupy coordination

fig 1, most icons from

In addition to automatically coordinating the event, the twitter bot broadcasts public information about the space – identifying where there are gaps and the need for people to help improve available information. The @occupyPOPS bot monitors Foursquare and Twitter for check-ins at addresses where a POPS is located. The bot sends the user a tweet letting them know that they are are at or near a privately-owned public space and following up with a request to help fill in some of the details missing from the public dataset. Most of the details that the bot would request the user to verify include specifications outlined by the City. The bot may also ask the user to offer their perception of the public space, a tally of the people currently in it, whether it appears suitable for Occupy, and if they have an idea on how it may be improved.

fig 2, most icons from

By drawing upon and cleaning the City’s dataset, OccupyPOPS makes each mini Occupy movement a method of increasing the usage of these spaces, mobilizing public participation in the regulation of these spaces, and in improving publicly available data.

possible outcomes for occupyPOPS

possible outcomes of a collaborative citizen dataset on public space

The particular tactic in this project is the assembling of a networked public on a public space and for the improvement of urban conditions. “In considering the social sustainability of our cities,” says Mirjam Struppek in Urban Screens, “we need to look closer at the ‘liveability’ and environmental conditions of public space; if people are to be encouraged to appropriate public space, new supportive strategies are needed in which they can take on the role of pro-active citizens, not just law-abiding consumers.” Improving and having a hand in the shaping of public spaces requires pro-active citizens and citizen groups to engage opposing actors (the City, property owners) by interfacing and challenging their information support systems with a citizen dataset. A significant aspect of the debate over the Occupy movement’s access to Zuccotti Park was over usage and equitable access to the public space. What data did Occupy have to support their position? In the wake of the Occupy movement, property developers will try to demand revisions to the POPS program. What data can be used to challenge that attempt?

Developing and maintaining a citizen’s dataset that is aggregated from government sourced Open Data and refined through citizen annotations, additions, transformation, and information architecture opens up potential fields for action not limited to the normalized expectations and the operationalized requirements that have emerged from the contest between City and property owners over public space. “The database evokes an architectural process that emphasizes intense attention,” says Jesse Shapins in Urban Database Documentary. The robots can help maintain the attention to public space that Occupy started.


Visualization of locations of privately-owned public spaces generated in Processing using the Unfolding library, Cloudmade map #55356, and the Privately-Owned Public Spaces dataset available on NYC Open Data.