Bio Mapping

Copyrirghted image of American Prison taken from internet

Information Commons

In the past couple of years there has been a great focus on security and the risk of terrorism in the media and by western governments. One effect of this has been a spread of surveillance in our cities. In the London underground, there was an expectation that by this year the number of cameras would reach 10,000 cameras. But this spread of surveillance is not only in our public spaces, and not only has it been concerned about ‘security’ per se. Some supermarket chains are using surveillance not only to monitor shoppers for possible shoplifting and other public order problems, but also for monitoring what they buy and how they shop. Some activists are concerned that the new RFID tags also present the potential to extend this much further.
What is oppressive about this? Is it the surveillance per se? Is it at least partly the way that the information flows? That is, in these systems, the information flows one way: - from the person walking around in the city, underground system or shop up to the surveillers- the upper management, the police, the shop owner. Further, do we also worry that it might be relatively easy to go from this type of surveillance (walking around the street) to identifying the person (through facial recognition software, for example), and profiling them, storing and archiving this information. In fact, there are examples of this kind of desire from governmental agencies, like the ‘total information awareness’ initiative from the US government.

This is, worryingly, the approach idealised in the Panopticon originated by Jeremy Bentham– where the authority (the watcher) has both total information of the watched and total control over it. Those observed have no powers, and can do nothing to avoid the observation. There is nowhere to hide.

However, we argue that there are other ways to think of our relationship to information in such a networked world. Imagine a situation where we are quite free to contribute where the information that we pool through sensors we freely wear (or just as freely discard). This shared pool can be used by any of us, as long as we also contribute to it. We call this approach that of the information commons. Essentially it would be like a peace of common land, what we all help look after; we get out of it what we put in. Common land was historically mutually owned, and people were free to use it for grazing their cattle, or using in other ways. However, they also contributed to its upkeep, and obeying agreed rules on use.

To apply this idea to information, we would conceive not of people watching over us, but of us being in charge of what data there were about us. If we have sensors and information we pick up, we are free to contribute it to the common information, for the common good. Maybe the rules are that we get out what we put in, so the more we can contribute, the more we get out. If we do not want to contribute, fine. But maybe then we do not get so much use of the information commons. There is no reason why we need to actually be identified - we can be anonymous - all that the ‘commons’ need to know is that we are contributing- then we can gain use of it. We work on our ‘allotment’ of information, and cultivate it, and it is our donation to the ‘commons’. What we get out is of course the use of the commons for our own ‘grazing’, searching the information and using it.

Biomapping together

Imagine the trail you make over the city, as you emerge from the Underground, as you walk in a park, as you jog around your streets, as you wait for a bus. All the time you are able to monitor your vital signs. This can be very useful. It can give you a little insight to the way you were feeling at certain points of the day. You can download your trail and look at where you were and how you were feeling.
What if you can combine this information with other inputs from other people? What if lots of people are monitoring their vital signs as they walk around the city and contributing to a shared pool of information? What we have is many people wandering about the city contributing many spot measurements of their own states as they move around the city. This information is contributed to the information commons and used by everyone.

Now one has an information resource with spot-measurements at particular time and, using GPS, at a particular place. These spot measurements can be fed into a central store- the home of the information commons. It would then be possible to look at this information in different ways. The system would take these measurements and apply statistical analysis to them in different ways to give different possibilities. The important thing is that it might make us able to see our world in new and interesting ways.

How is the town today? It may be interesting to know generally how the town feels today- that is, a general measure of the whole city in general. Or maybe I want to know how the whole town changes during the day, whether its stress levels vary, for instance.
What areas are more stressed than others? By combining vital signs information with GPS in the database, we may be able to make a ‘broader’ map of how particular areas ‘feel’ at different types of day.
We may be able to navigate by ‘feeling’- looking on our maps of the city, and our Biomap, and seeing how different areas ‘feel’.

Maybe we will become a different type of traveller: travelling to the most stressed, upset looking areas of the city, maybe we will begin to wonder why they are like that…

Or maybe we will look for somewhere in the city that is particularly mellow, where, judging from the colour of the map, people are generally having a good time

Maybe, when we look at our map, these areas might be rather surprising. Maybe, when we navigate in this way, we will find new landmarks, new places to discover. Maybe we will see our city in new ways.


Specially Commisioned Essay for the BioMapping Project by
- Alan Munro 2004

Alan Munro is a Senior Researcher at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim, Norway. He is currently working between the fields of interaction design, ethnographic fieldwork for design, and (a critical perspective on) ubiquitous computing.

Christian Nold
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Last Updated 22.08.07


Hello I need to get feedback from people about what they think about the Bio Mapping project. Please help by filling out this online form. Thanks so much !!!


I am in Tokyo speaking and running a Bio Mapping workshop at the Dislocate 07 conference. Come and join us if you are around.


Link to all the press coveage

The San Francisco Emotion Map is complete. At the end of July I will be Bio Mapping in Tokyo. Until then I am working on my book and setting up a project in Stockport and Stoke Newington. Please see my main site for more info.


There is a new interview about the Bio Mapping project.


Bio Mapping has won the SciArt R&D award which will give me time to write a book about the project and commission some critical / historical essays around the project. If you are intersted in writing one get in touch!

Live interview on WAMU US public radio.


New articles about Bio Mapping on the Discovery Channel the New Scientist and on Slashdot in the German Telepolis, Italian MondoGIS , French Liberation and Techno Science as well as British Council magazine


A high quality MPEG4 video of the Greenwich Emotion Map is available for download


I was interviewed on BBC World Service and NewsTalk106. See Tom Hagler's walk in Covent Garden.
(requires Google Earth)


The Observer carries an article on Bio Mapping. Click on the links to view David Smith's walks in rural Bibury as well as 'Murder Mile' in Hackney.
(requires Google Earth)