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How to achieve digital equality in smart cities

Who we design digital devices and apps for can unintentionally exclude some users, a process referred to as ‘digital inequality’
Kuva: Matti Ahlgren.
Photo: Aalto University/Matti Ahlgren

Johanna Ylipulli has started as a postdoctoral researcher in Aalto University's Information Networks programme, which combines social science expertise and a human-centred vision with engineering education.

‘Technology should be studied from different perspectives, such as psychology or anthropology. Complex problems like climate change cannot be solved without a multidisciplinary approach’

Ylipulli studies how we can avoid digital inequality in smart cities. Digital inequality refers to three separate issues. Firstly, how people’s opportunities to own or access different digital devices and apps differ. Secondly, the differences in people’s skills in how to use the devices and applications. Finally, there can be differences in people’s understanding of the deeper role technology plays in society.

‘Inequality manifests itself not only among people, but also in power relations between people, large companies or institutions. For example, social media companies or government organisations like cities can collect, analyse and utilise their user’s data.’

According to Ylipulli, it is important to consider who smart cities are being developed for, as people have different interests. Older people are considered reluctant to adopt and use new technologies, but at the same time, applications are designed primarily for young adults.

Ylipulli has already studied digital inequalities by interviewing experts responsible for digital development and digitalisation in Helsinki and the City of Espoo. In her new work, she will also have access to the user’s perspective. One method she is using will be including a comprehensive question sets in an upcoming city service survey in Espoo,.

‘Technology is often designed using a self-centred approach. Designers assume that everyone else is interested in the same things as they are.’

Similarly, when the majority of technology is designed by men, the male point of view is strongly visible.

‘For example, car crash test dummies have long been made according to men’s measurements. The tests have been designed to protect men's bodies. Many safety products, such as respirator masks, can also be too big for women. The same principle applies to digital technology, but the differences are more subtle and relate to content, for example.’

Kuva: Matti Ahlgren.

Virtual forest

Ylipulli is also studying the role of libraries as enablers for technological opportunities. Libraries made the Internet accessible to everyone in the 1990s. Libraries still have a role to play in increasing citizens' technological knowledge and educating citizens to be more critical of technology.

‘People have to be able to operate in a hyper-intelligent urban environment.’

Ylipulli started a library collaboration in Oulu, where she designed a virtual reality application using participatory design methods in collaboration with computer scientists and the city library.

‘The app includes a virtual environment similar to the library's real-world environment, but also an elevator that is able to take the user to three different fantasy worlds. In these fantasy worlds you can get recommendations for books, move objects, or write together.’

Ylipulli is now taking library cooperation to a new level in Helsinki, where an application that can be used by all libraries is being developed. The theme is a virtual forest.

"A forest is perceived as a calming and highly Finnish theme, and the virtual forest fascinates people. This is a long-term open source development project that libraries can develop further in the future.’

A woman in the world of science

Ylipulli is one of 15 scientists interviewed for the book Tiedenaisia: suomalaisia tutkimuksen ytimessä (Female scientists - Finns at the heart of research), which was published this year. The book introduces the interviewees' and their career paths.

‘Women have to work much harder than men for their expertise to be taken seriously. Women are also not so easily seen as experts or leaders. This is reflected at superficial levels, such as where women have to pay more attention to their appearance in order to look like experts.’

However, women want to be considered primary as experts, not as women. At the same time, fields of technology need female role models.

‘The IT sector in Finland still is still a very male-dominated field. This is a cultural phenomenon, and in some other countries more women work in the information technology industry.’

Johanna Ylipulli was born in Rovaniemi in 1979 and in 2015 gained her PhD in cultural anthropology at the University of Oulu. The focus of her thesis was design and use of urban information technology. She has worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Ubiquitous Computing (UBICOMP) at University of Oulu from 2015, and from 2018, the Helsinki Institute of Urban and Regional Studies (Urbaria) at University of Helsinki.

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