PT_Safe @EUvsVirus Hackathon

-By Robert Braun, Institute for Advanced Studies, Vienna

True to the CAS spirit of doing more than academic/research work, over the weekend a team formed around CAS members participated in the biggest ever Hackathon (https://euvsvirus.org/) to bring innovation solutions to challenges presented by COVID-19. Challenges ranged from health to social inclusion issues, more than 20 000 people participated and more than 2200 pitches/solutions/ideas were submitted after three days of collaborative work. 

Thinking beyond automobility we took up the challenge of the future of public transport. With Vangelis Genitsaris from Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, our group members at IHS (Matthias, Anna, Johannes, Shauna), and others (designers, computer experts, social entrepreneurs) we created the ‘PT_Safe’ team online and came up with something really cool and important: how to revitalize public transport providers (PTs) during and after the crisis with a database of best practices shared across providers, involving feedback from citizens and other stakeholders. we created the concept, a mock-up of the website, also some design and, most importantly, a video describing what we have in mind.

Please check out our pitch, do keep your fingers crossed for the award ceremony at the end of the week:

Quarantine Map

-By Ondřej Mulíček, Masaryk University, Czech Republic

European countries are currently implementing various measures to manage the COVID-19 epidemic. These include various forms of quarantine and social distanciation, which significantly change the spatial patterns of everyday life. From a geographical point of view, the current situation is a kind of experiment that allows a deeper insight into the ways in which individuals spatially respond to exceptional conditions.

At the Department of Geography of the University of Brno, we developed a simple application Quarantine Map that seeks to capture the basic patterns of individual spatial behavior in the period prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and to compare them with those during the times of emergency measures. So far, we have focused on respondents from the Czech Republic, who provided us with a solid response. Preliminary outputs show that the spatial extent of daily activities during the quarantine is approximately half that of normal situation.

Encouraged by the results so far, we have adapted the application for use by European respondents. It is available at this link:

https://karantena.brnourbangrid.cz/en/

We will be grateful if you decide to share your experience through the application. We hope that the data collected will allow us to understand at least the basic spatial shifts taking place at the scale-level of daily routines.

The Return of Hitchhikers

-By Michael O’ Regan, Bournemouth University, UK

Whereas motorscapes have come to be associated with automobility, I examine mobility cultures with their own politics, cultures and identities associated with innovative appropriations of existing materialities, to work below the radar, to modify the abstract rhythms of motorways. Hitchhikers see the value of the globalizing system of automobility, but already understand, as we do now, the fragilities on which this mobility is based, since you must set aside personal ambitions and often go with someone else’s flow, travelling on someone else’s time.

As the COVID 19 pandemic plays out, and hitchhiker online forums slow down, hitchhiker blogs[i] have become more reflexive.  Roads and motorways have become material infrastructure again, filtered for the essential circulation of people, goods, and information.  Hitchhikes dream of conversations with drivers and other passengers, potential encounters, and emotional connections. They are using the lessons learnt whilst hitchhiking during the lockdown. They have learnt to continue to enact and perform mobility (and stillness) in their homes. Used to stillness, stopping, and blockages, their homes like cars or service stations are prisms rather than prisons. Their socio-cultural-political readings of infrastructure and automobilities looks at car parks, filling stations and repair garages to service motorways that structure and produce unsustainable urban and regional automobilities as places where hitchhikers can replenish their bodies, interact with other hitchhikers, drivers and service station employees and sleep overnight. MS on an email list (April 15th) says:

A petrol station is prison for many but heaven to a hitchhiker. Lockdown at home is a heavenly prison for anyone who’s slept enough in a trash bag on cardboard. Hitchhiking for me, as well as being about freedom to move, is about developing the patience and gratitude to appreciate when and where you are not moving, as well as the confident belief in the eventual return of future movement, or at least future change.

In looking at the future, hitchhikers worry about decreased trust, automobile and road surveillance systems, police crackdowns, anti-hitchhiking legislation, and a sensationalist media who might turn them into sinister figures. They also hope for increased solidary and the increased demand for human interaction, intimate engagement, connectivity and exchange in a post COVID 19 world. They might also hope that drivers, landowners and service station workers and police officers reading this piece might see the cultural value of the practice and the social, political and environmental values of the participants who coalesce around it.


[i] https://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=pl&u=https://za-plotem.pl/korona-stop-jak-wyobrazam-sobie-swiat-bez-autostopu/&prev=search

Automobility, eclipsed

-By Johannes Fiedler, Architect, Graz

While vowing to abstain from general conclusions on automobility before the backdrop of the current public health crisis, I do feel incited to comment on the way car-use is handled in the restrictions of movement imposed by the authorities. The ordinance of March 15th 2020, issued by the Austrian Ministry of Health[1] restricts the access to public places to a limited set of purposes, described in 4 Articles: 1-self-protection, 2- care for others, 3 – covering daily basic needs, 4 – work. Article 5 indicates that all other activities are allowed as long as they are undertaken only in the company of persons sharing the same residence and that a minimum distance is kept to all other persons. There is no restriction of the range of movement.  In a separate clause of the same ordinance, the use of public transport is restricted to the purposes 1-4, with the effect that people are not allowed to use trains, trams and buses for non-essential purposes, such as for recreation.

The use of cars, however, is not restricted. Hence, it is perfectly legal to drive to any place in Austria, for whatever purpose – as long as you are alone or accompanied by members of your own household. Technically speaking, this regulation makes sense, as the idea of the restrictions is to limit the danger of contagion, which is given in public transport and not in a car. Socially, however, the grossly distorted range of movement between car-users and those who do not drive, poses a risk to the idea of solidarity in the combat against the spread of the disease. It leaves large parts of the population, especially in cities, confined to their immediate surroundings, while others are free to roam. Astonishingly, people assume that restrictions on the range of movement apply (which is only the case is some Alpine municipalities) and they abstain from exploiting the automotive freedom that the legal lacuna is offering.

With little traffic on the roads and in the streets, the matter of automobility is eclipsed from public discussion.


[1] https://www.ris.bka.gv.at/Dokumente/BgblAuth/BGBLA_2020_II_98/BGBLA_2020_II_98.pdfsig

Misconception and Intent: The Moral Economy of Corona Numbers

-by Hendrik Wagenaar, King’s College London, Institute for Advanced Studies, Vienna

Every crisis has its unique standout characteristic that later colours our memory of it. With the dot.com crisis it was the newly minted stock market millionaires, some among our family or friends, that went bust overnight. With 9/11 it was the endlessly repeated images of the slow-motion collapse of the twin towers, in large billowing clouds of smoke, dust and flames. With the 2008 financial crisis it was the repeated doomsday predictions of financial experts that the world’s financial system was about to implode.

The current Corona crisis will be remembered for its data-heaviness: its iconic image is the curve. Every day the media open with the number of new infections, the daily death toll, the number of available ICU beds projected against the number of new cases, or, my favorite, P0, the index for the reproduction rate of a disease, the average number of people infected by one person – all this presented in colourful graphs and tables. Readers and viewers are assured that the number have been compiled by authoritative, scientific sources, organizations with bland acronyms that suddenly have become household names: Public Health England, the RIVM (Rijksinstituut voor  Volksgezondheid en Milieu) in the Netherlands, the IMHE (Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation) in Seattle. And most importantly, the pundits and commentators, can sigh their collective sighs of relief: Thank God, the curve is flattening. The daily number of deaths has declined now two days in a row. And there is, as always, the stock market to provide its own breathless commentary: Wall Street has seen the largest price decline since the 1930s. Massive gains over the last four days. And so it goes on.

The datafication of the Corona crisis is a classic meme. It is the symbolic expression of an underlying need, collectively felt but never expressed, a covert social meaning. Data, in whatever shape or form, are a substitute for certainty in uncertain times. The public, locked away in their homes, derive sparks of hope from the statistics and commentary moving across their various screens. Governments, trying to project authority in a fog of uncertainty, latch on to the scientific credentials of their data sources. The following statement by the UK Department of Health – a country where the government is increasingly criticized for its belated response to the Corona crisis – is representative of  hundreds such statements by government agencies all over the world: “Our response to coronavirus – including decisions on which measures we introduce and when – is based on the latest scientific advice, modelling and evidence, and we are working round the clock with world-renowned clinicians, public health experts and scientists to keep this country safe.” (Guardian, April 8, 2020).

Confronted with the moral economy of datafication, the title of a book by Willem Frederik Hermans (1921-1995), one of the Netherlands’ greatest writers, came to mind. Moedwil en Misverstand in strong, resonant Dutch; Wilful Intent and Misconception, in accurate but cumbersome English . Hermans’ title expressed his bleak nihilistic cosmology of an indifferent universe, beyond pity or mercy, in which exposed, powerless individuals are driven by guilt, remorse and mutual misunderstanding. (Actually not a bad image of the Corona crisis.) I use it to typify the current attitude towards the Corona data. For despite the daily avalanche of data, its effect is mystification, deliberate and inadvertently. And, officials, experts and the media work hand in hand to create this overwhelming sense of befuddlement.

These ‘Hermansian’ thoughts came over me when I found in my Twitter timeline an article by Tomas Pueyo. Pueyo had compiled, presented and commented on a range of data on the Corona crisis in a way that, for the first time in these past months, struck me as useful and meaningful. Pueyo spoke truth to power. What did he do that the media overwhelmingly had failed to do so far? 

First of all, Pueyo presents only comparative data. I understand the urge to know about the infection rate or the number of Corona deaths in your country, but this is more or less useless, and even misleading, information without the ability to compare it to other countries. At the time of writing this blog I learn that 234 people have died in the Netherlands in the last 24 hours bringing the cumulative total at 2101. The website of the IMHE allows me to put that number in perspective. Austria, my country of residence, has had a total of 254 deaths at April 8, compared to 2,420 in the Netherlands. Differently put, the Netherlands, with a population that is twice that of Austria, has almost ten times as many Corona deaths. Germany (pop. 83 million) has 2098 deaths compared to the UK’s (pop. 66,6 million) 8867. These numbers tell a powerful story, and it is a story of the success or failure of policy making. Countries that introduced stringent social distancing measures early on, that is, when the number of Corona deaths was still low, and that engaged in large scale testing, did much better than those that didn’t. Speaking truth to power.

Pueyo also asks astute questions about infection rates. Each country publishes official numbers on the incidence of infection. They are close to useless, as they merely reflect the quality of the testing regime. How can we reliably estimate the real number of infections? Pueyo argues that the higher the percentage of positives, the more likely it is that a country doesn’t test. Spain has a 50% positives rate, countries like Vietnam or Germany, which have high testing rates, around 4%.  Spain’s count is surely a serious underestimate. Using the number of deaths per 100 cases, and assuming a 1% fatality rate, the numbers already double, Factoring in the time between infection and death, and then working backwards towards the infection rate, leads to an 8-fold increase in the official numbers. On April 8, the website of the Dutch RIVM registers 19750 people who tested positively, an increase of 777 compared to the day before (warning that the real number is higher because not everyone who is infected has been tested). Pueyo gives us an idea of how much higher: more likely around 160.000. Speaking truth to power.

There is a lot more in Pueyo’s article, such as the delightful trouvaille of a “Hubei”, as the standard measure by which to assess the future course of Covid-19 infections (“As a rule of thumb, a region that has more cases than Hubei but hasn’t taken the same measures as Hubei at least as early as them is very likely to end up with both more cases and more deaths than Hubei.), or his discussion of a study that links physical distancing and the speed and size of economic recovery. I am a policy analyst by training. What makes Pueyo’s work stand out, and act as a mirror to the standard reporting on the Corona crisis, is that he is a brilliant policy analyst. Before he presents data, he asks himself a relevant question. How reliable are incidence data in light of different testing regimes? What do national data tell us? How can we make accurate predictions about the rate of economic recovery? He then concludes that the traditional numbers don’t answer the questions and sets out to find creative solutions to enhance them. Some of these improvements are straightforward: national numbers only make sense in international comparison. Some are cleverly analytic: the number of deaths is a more reliable indicator of the seriousness of the crisis than incidence. Can we derive an estimate of the scope of incidence starting from mortality rates? Every move in his article is forward-looking, action-oriented. If your region is a “Hubei”, you better make work of stringent physical-distancing measures. The quasi-experiment during the 1918 pandemic clearly shows that herd-immunity strategies are associated slower and weaker economic recovery. And all this in a style that is delightfully free of academic ponderousness. This is first-rate, pragmatic, critical, useful policy analysis. So, here’s my modest proposal. Away with politicians, officials and pundits pontificating about the state of the Corona crisis. Away with journalists who uncritically pass on the self-congratulatory fabrications from, Washington, Westminster or The Hague. Give Pueyo a prime-time slot. But that won’t happen, because his message is too subversive in the moral economy of Corona reporting. I, for my part, will from now on assign Pueyo’s articles as mandatory reading in my policy classes, and award a ‘Pueyo’ for the best term paper. I hope Schools of Journalism will follow suit.  


Drive-in Church Service in Corona City

-By Ole B. Jensen, Aalborg University

The auto-mobilized flexibility of ‘drive-inn’ or ‘drive-through’ services is well known all over the world. Since the booming 1950’s American car-culture has often been symbolised with representations of drive-in movie theatres, fast-food chains, banks, home depos etc. Cultural practices such as barbecue parties held on parking lots while waiting for sports events named ‘tail gaiting’ is an illustration of how the car mediates and enact various cultural practices (1). For decades McDonalds have been offering drive-in fast food services in Europe, and today it is quite commonplace to drive through a hardware store in the out-of-town shopping areas in Danish cities. In Denmark, we have also had drive-in cinemas, however, not on any large scale and most often as a more exotic American-inspired feature.

In the early days of the corona crisis in the USA, we started seeing reports about drive-inn or drive-through corona tests facilities being set-up (2). Not long hereafter Danish hospitals followed suit with drive-in test facilities (3). Drive-in church services are now the latest twist on the ‘auto-mobilization of corona’ to be reported in Danish media. Today the Danish newspaper Politiken reports about a drive-in church service held yesterday (Palm Sunday) in Valby, a suburban neighbourhood to Copenhagen (4). The newspaper report of the event on social media reads; “Honk-Honk-Honk. Churches all over the country have been closed down for services as long as Denmark is closed down. They have found a solution to this in Valby. Drive-in church service. You stay in your car while you listen to the preaching, and you can sing along on the psalms” (my translation).

As my last blog entry here titled ‘Driving through Corona City’ (4) this re-opens reflections on the discussion of the so-called ‘cocooning’ and the car. As I stated there, I am critical of the ‘iron cage’ description of the car. Rather, I see the car as filtering and mediating the ‘I-world’ relation. In thinking about ‘driving through corona city’, I did conclude that there is an element of cocooning related to the car. The recent case of Danish drive-in church services seems to support this. What was taking place in Valby, Copenhagen yesterday was in some respect a case of utilizing the ‘car as shield’ against the real and imagined corona virus threat by your neighbouring worshipper. As the wicker of the local church lamented the lack of co-present worshipping, he realized that the solution was exactly the car as it shielded off the members of the congregation sufficiently to be able to do service. From the newspaper account we learn that it was only permitted to have the left-side car window open, and that cars had to be parked with sufficient safe distance between them (2 meters). There were, however, accounts of small exceptions as for instance a woman waving her hands up though the sun-roof of the car, or the two girls watching the service with an open backdoor of the car (hatchback model that is).

How to make sense of all this in the light of critical Automobility analysis? Obviously, this is yet another case of car-based stratification and even exclusion. How can you attend drive-in church service if you do not have access to a car? Thus, this dimension inscribe itself into the long line of other forms of ‘exclusion by the car’ (as the drive-in corona test facilities also suggest). However, here I want to return to my interest in the ‘filtering vs cocooning’ discussion. At first glance, the practice of organizing a drive-in church service seems to suggest that, yes the car is a cocoon. This is precisely why the service is doable without violating the corona security enforcement-rules. However, if you start looking more closely, this service would not make sense if the car truly were a cocoon let alone an ‘iron cage’. The visual engagement with the wicker and the band mediated via a large TV screen and AV audio systems would not make sense if service could not be seen or heard. The waiving of hands out of car windows, and the honking of horns are clear elements of an interactional reciprocity and two-way communication. Something that is impossible to do if you are ‘sealed off’ and isolated from the world. The news reporter also notices that the wicker shouts out ‘can we dance a bit?’ and the car-drivers start honking the horns and rocking the cars from side to side. Creating a technologically mediated and admittedly slightly more ‘slow dance’ than you would normally see. The cars turned into movable envelopes that register body-movement even with some friction compared to the effortless dance that would have been the situation had the congregation met at its ordinary Sunday church.

This small story provoked my sociological imagination as so much else have done in these strange corona times. However, it is also testament to why it is important that a critical Automobility analysis take point of departure in the car as a filtering and mediating device, rather as a cocooning device. The case here seem exotic perhaps but it is just another piece to the puzzle of understanding how we inhabit the world through technology of the car.

References

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