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Anders Koed Madsen

Anders Koed Madsen is an Associate Professor at Aalborg University Copenhagen

What is your research background?

I have an interdisciplinary background. I did my undergrad studies in philosophy and social science where I got a lasting interest in what you might call practical epistemology. How is knowledge produced? Through which tools? With which assumptions? To whose benefit? I then moved to UIC in Chicago to do my master’s in Communications and Internet Studies. Starting in 2008 I experienced the boom of social media and got fascinated by the fact that the web could serve as a new empirical world for humanists and social scientists. Also, when in Chicago for two years it is impossible not to be exposed to pragmatism. Therefore, I did my Ph.D. on how the web can be repurposed as a tool for inquiry. For instance, I studied how organizations like the UN began to use tweets as empirical signals of crisis and to what extent such data could even play a role in an organization with a thirst for standardized methods. Gradually, I began to build digital tools for inquiry myself. I wanted to intervene in the world of representations rather than just study them. This led me to move to Aalborg University in Copenhagen where I have since 2013 been involved in building The Techno-Anthropological Laboratory (www.tantlab.aau.dk) and The Public Data Lab (https://publicdatalab.org/)

What has your research been on and its impact?

For the last four years my research has been focused on the role that digital methods and computational humanities can play in the production of urban cartographies. Since people increasingly leave qualitative traces of their urban lives it is now possible to practice data-driven urbanism with roots in humanistic epistemologies. The digital components of the city are not just mirrors of its physical counterpart. They are themselves shaping the way people make sense of the places they live. Furthermore, digital traces are so granular that we can begin to understand urban life without starting from bureaucratic grids such as ZIP codes or neighborhoods. We can make urban cartographies that are both data-driven, situated, and qualitative. This is what we in a recent paper propose to call soft city sensing (SCS) (https://authors.elsevier.com/sd/article/S0264-2751(22)00110-X). This is a call for making the urban tangible in new ways and hopefully, open the discussion of the urban for different expert voices. Throughout the last years, I have tried to practice SCS in different ways. Together with colleagues in TANTLab and GEHL architects I have used data from Facebook to map political segregation (https://tantlab.gehlpeople.com/) and built an app that enables communities on the margin of Copenhagen to provide visual narratives about their sense of urban belonging (www.urbanbelonging.com).

What should the broader community take from this research?

This depends on what we think of when we think of a community. If it is the research community I think of my work as building upon work done with digital methods and the computational humanities for decades. But I hope the work on Soft City Sensing can inspire qualitative urban scholars to ponder the possibilities of furthering their urban interest by ‘thinking with algorithms’ while retaining their interpretative ambitions. I think it is time to break down the wall between qualitative and quantitative science that was perhaps erected in the 1960s when humanities scholars began to associate quantification with modernism, rationalization, and a version of positivism that few probably ascribed to. I would like us to go back and take inspiration from the creative ways in which quantitative and qualitative work was combined in earlier times. If the community is interpreted broader, I hope that my research can help promote the idea that the publics that form on digital media are just as legitimate as those that form in the city hall.  This is why we need methods to listen to them.

How do you see your research contributing to public policy in urban cities?

When imagining the data possibilities in the digitized city, urban planners have primarily focused on the use of cheap sensors and the Internet of things to track physical objects in space. The ambition has to make the city more efficient and the resulting maps often lose track of the human aspects of the city. The way people make sense of it and generate a sense of belonging (or the opposite) to the places in which they live their lives. I hope that the SCS framework can help make room for different ways of practicing data-driven urbanism. For instance, in the context of the EU where the New European Bauhaus initiative would benefit greatly from such methodological innovation. If my research can stimulate urban decision-makers to expand their criteria for what serves as valid data inputs to urban planning, I would be very satisfied.

What research projects or collaborations are on the horizon?

I would very much like to expand on the work that I recently did on political segregation. This issue has often been understood with reference to voting data and thereby framed as a problem of the residence. However, SCS methods enable us to study how urban life in third places like bars and sports venues contributes to this specific form of segregation. I would also very much like to further investigate how digital and analog data visualization can be used to elicit public debates around such issues.