Community-Based Tech Ubiquity in the Built Environment

April 30, 2007 · by Leigh Lally, et al.

Many individuals already have on-the-go access to unprecedented amounts of real-time information through a variety of hand-held, satellite-linked devices such as cell phones, global-positioning systems and tablet personal computers. The prevalence of these technologies and the emergence of tech-ubiquity have the potential to drastically improve the richness and accessibility of our built environment. Synergy between our actions and electronically mediated interactions will inevitably influence human interaction and use of public spaces. Information Communication Technology will be both mobile and built into the environment, essentially ubiquitous. But will people be able to effectively use it?

The economics and sociology of pervasive computing in urban environments are intimately intertwined. The mal-distribution of opportunities resulting from the implementation of information communication technology has made it a focus at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). This has brought attention to the need for an “effective use” approach, which ensures that the economic and social opportunities of technology benefit the entire community, through actively involving community leaders, architects, and planners in the rapid development of these technological initiatives.

Located in Blacksburg, Virginia, a rural university town in the mountains of Southwestern Virginia, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) is setting the stage for ubiquitous computing in the built environment. How does a community of 41,000 people set the stage for pervasive computing in urban areas? Metropolitan areas can be looked at as a cluster of individual communities very much like Blacksburg. As home to Virginia Tech, Blacksburg attracts a multitude of visitors for tours, conferences, and athletic events, similar to what would be found in a typical urban area. It is necessary to look at the city both holistically as well as by its constituent community attributes. Planning for urban areas requires consideration of the social, economic, and environmental requirements of the city through representative stakeholders from commerce and government in addition to understanding the goals and needs of each distinct community.

At Virginia Tech the Center for Human Computer Interaction focuses on the community in terms of the social benefits and costs related to new technologies. As an inter-disciplinary team that includes faculty and students from computer science, engineering and architecture and urban planning disciplines, our research depends on multi-disciplinary collaboration in the development of overall vision and design methodologies. As we pursue research of pervasive computing in urban spaces, we see the need for an “effective use” approach. In particular, we seek to draw upon the experience and techniques of other disciplines actively working with the urban environment.

Community-based Design for Tech-ubiquity
The fields of human-computer interaction and architecture and planning share similar design methodologies, including “effective use” and user-centered interaction design. The architecture and planning profession can effect a rapid transformation to tech-ubiquity in the built environment through truly collaborative, innovative design practices. Both fields are rooted by social and physical context-based objectives, thus providing a common ground for the collaboration required to investigate ways of embedding Information Communication Technology into our communities in a globally enhanced sustainable manner.

Community-based design for tech-ubiquity integrates community design methodologies and collaborative processes such as integrated design and innovative design techniques including interaction design:

Community Design is a methodology that encompasses community participation and planning along with community and social architecture initiatives. The participative and collaborative nature of this methodology offers tools and methods applicable to other professions. The charrette, as an agent for new urbanism, is a cross-disciplinary platform which allows stakeholders to effectively shape their own futures as architects and planners create holistic community designs that incorporate all aspects of urban life.

Integrated design is a collaborative design methodology emphasizing knowledge integration in the development of holistic designs. The practice inherently maximizes the benefits of multi-disciplinary collaboration throughout the design process. The underpinnings for integrated design practices are in the “whole building design” approach. By viewing a building system interdependently as opposed to its separate elements (site, structure, systems and use), the approach facilitates sustainable design practices. Integrated design processes require multi-disciplinary collaboration, including key stakeholders and design professionals, from concept to completion. Decision-making protocols and complimentary design principals must be established early in the process in order to satisfy the goals of multiple stakeholders while achieving the overall project objectives. The understanding of integrated design has evolved in conjunction with the rise of multi-disciplinary design firms and is now being used as a term to describe a collaborative design process.

Interaction design is the means to embody the software of places, according to Malcolm McCullough in his book, Digital Ground. An architect equally familiar with technology, McCullough expounds a theory which suggests that interaction design has evolved to a state serving both pervasive computing and architecture as they unite in the physical environment. McCullough is a proponent of enabling ubiquitous computing in concert with architecture and planning through interdisciplinary context-based design initiatives. He warns that if architects and pervasive technology developers don’t take the leap and join forces, the new discipline will be left to technocrats and remain void of usability and design consideration. As the appropriateness of the technology moves to the fore, design must become more intentional. His focus on the elements of interaction design, as a tool for successful integration of technology into the social and physical environment, offers a shared point of departure for the future of ubiquitous computing.

IDEO has established itself as leaders of the practice of interaction design, a concept developed by IDEO co-founder, Bill Moggridge. An evolution of interface design, interaction design is now used by multiple disciplines interested in the usability and experience of an object or a system. Interaction design follows a process of iterations in which design solutions can be generated quickly and tested with the users. Similar to community design for “effective use”, interaction design requires design research and concept development, storyboarding and schematics as well as concept testing with the stakeholders prior to implementation. With the advent of computers, technology has become the only truly interactive product.

The field of human computer interaction focuses on usability and employs social computing techniques such as interaction design, usability engineering, and interface design methodologies. These techniques follow analogous design paths including the identification of project goals, stakeholders, and specific project requirements. There are numerous similarities in the built environment and technology design processes which facilitate user-centered approaches for “effective use” of technology. Through multi-disciplinary collaboration, these methodologies can be adapted for use in designing and planning for community-based pervasive computing in the built environment and urban spaces.

Setting the Stage
Virginia Tech has a history of technology foresight as demonstrated by the deployment of one of the most successful community computing initiatives in the country, the Blacksburg Electronic Village (BEV). The BEV – established in 1993 – was the first community in the world with Internet access. It has consistently maintained one of the highest rates of Internet penetration in the world, achieving a saturation rate of nearly 90 percent by 2002. BEV was designed and developed using a community computing approach, akin to “effective use” and based on participatory design principals.

The Virginia Tech university campus setting is an excellent test bed for our research, not only because of mobile computer ownership requirements, but also because the university is currently committed to significant investments in leading edge infrastructure and an array of applications serving the extended VT campus and community. These investments extend into the thirty million dollar range over the next several years and encompass much of the pervasive computing capability of an interactive city.

The Center for Human Computer Interaction (CHCI),, integrates the construction of innovative software and applications with the development of social and behavioral methods and analyses. CHCI has been constructing innovative software and investigating the use and social impact of computing through multiple interdisciplinary projects, including: the LINK-UP usability engineering environment; the SeeVT location awareness notification system; information re-finding; cultural issues in usability engineering; technology support for education; digital government; and the Blacksburg Electronic Village.

With the confluence of wireless internet clouds covering wide areas, and more capable and powerful handheld devices, there is now an opportunity to enrich our every day experiences on-the-go by providing location-aware information that benefits not only individuals but entire communities. This opportunity allows us to break the traditional experience model where users enter cyberspace via some specific portal (e.g., desktop, or even semi-mobile laptops and tablets) and provides a new experience model where internet-based information comes to users and groups in timely and location-relevant ways. Modern location sensing techniques such as GPS, and our own homegrown SeeVT system, which uses Wireless LAN to determine location, allow us to determine the relative location of our users. Accurate location information is the corner stone of such location-aware communities.

The model for the design process draws from multiple disciplines with a focus on architecture and urban planning techniques for pervasive computing applications in urban areas. From our experiences, we have found that user interface and user interaction design and evaluation needs to be highly iterative and creative early on in the process, especially for systems which do not have standards or “best practices” to reference for design guidance. Through a participatory design process, we focus on the needs of our users, seeking to understand how location-based technologies can help them realize social and personal benefits. The design and implementation of our technologies are conducted using a customized usability engineering methodology, an extension of a scenario-based development methodology and interaction design techniques. Claims-centric, scenario-based design methodology focus design through the use of design claims, leveraging an agile usability approach and claims map design representations to help to guide system development. This process captures the design in prototypes and interfaces that can be used in long-term user studies.

We plan to identify user needs and interests from the outset, and to enlist user collaboration in the development of specific scenarios of use. Following the high-level interaction design stage, we will hold charrette events with the stakeholders and interested community members. This will provide an open forum to engage the community in visualizing the designs and allows them the opportunity to provide input in determining the final design(s). We will extend this participative process with advanced infrastructure and applications, including augmenting collaboration through blogs and wikis. As designs mature and become more integrated with backend functionality we will then apply evaluations which employ representative users from each of our user groups engaged in increasingly realistic/real tasks with the system.

This approach supports interactive citizenry in location-aware communities and employs location-aware, mobile augmented reality and personal information management technologies to provide personal and community benefits to people with disabilities, students, and community leaders, targeting user groups representative of a diverse community. Community leaders help define and drive changes, and with the adoption and use of new technologies by these leaders, it is expected that others will follow. We have a long-term collaborative relationship with interactive citizenry initiative stakeholders, dating back to the origins of the BEV in 1993. As with prior efforts of Virginia Tech, we expect our community to act as an exemplar to others across the nation and world in the use of location-based mobile technologies.

Common Ground
We assert that it is necessary to find common ground to build on in order to facilitate active community participation and ensure “effective use” of the technology and benefit society as a whole. The nature of pervasive, ubiquitous computing requires that it be inscribed into the social and physical fabric of our daily lives. If we ignore this fact, ICT integration could potentially be exploited by those uninterested in responsibly developing a community-based pervasive computing environment, leaving certain constituents behind in the process. By first acknowledging this issue we can then begin to draw on the strengths of the multiple disciplines engaged in the efforts and through the cultivation of synergy between the increasingly related design methodologies a common ontology can be formulated to facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration. With a shared goal of creating successful social and physical context-based designs we can create common ground between the stakeholders and meet this design challenge head on. The combined experience and shared foresight can provide guidelines for responsibly planning the integration of technology into our everyday urban environments and lifestyles.

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Community-based Tech-ubiquity

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  2. Lennertz, Bill, (2003), The Charrette as an Agent for Change for New Urbanism: Comprehensive Report & Best Practices Guide, 3rd Edition. Ithaca: New Urban Publications, pp. 12-2-8.

  3. McCullough, Malcolm, (2004), Digital Ground, Architecture, Pervasive Computing, and Environmental Knowing, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA

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  6. William Mitchell, (1999), e-topia, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA

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