Uncovering the Mystery of Smart Cities

By: Maeve O’Connor

This March marks one year since the widespread start of lockdown, quarantine and COVID-19. This past year has kept people apart physically, but many have remained connected to the outside world through the use of digital technologies. In a year where everyone’s life has shifted online, Dr. Gregory T. Donovan wants to know how that shift has affected people’s understanding of privacy.

Donovan is the Associate Professor in the Department of Communication and Media Studies, as well as the director of the New Media and Digital Design Program at Fordham University. Donovan’s work at Fordham and his research combines his knowledge of environmental psychology with his knowledge of digital technologies.

“What I focused on and still look at are how digital environments shape people’s everyday experiences; not just the physical design of our environment or the social way our environment is organized, but how the digital aspects play a role in mediating both those factors,” Donovan said.   

Donovan’s current research works to understand how newer, digital aspects of society make people more aware of their digital footprint. “I would like to start interviewing

young people, probably 14 to 19 years old, living in New York City and primarily youth of color. The idea is to see how they’re navigating apps like Citizen or Neighbor, where you submit local findings,” Donovan said.

A lot of these applications connect to smart home technologies, like Neighbor, which is tied into the Ring doorbell. These technologies engage a smaller group of consumers, but their influence has a much wider range than is studied by researchers.

“In a lot of new research, especially around smart home technologies, because these are expensive technologies, it’s usually about studying the people who can afford to own them,” Donovan continued. “But if you look at all the people those technologies actually affect, who might not own those technologies, but are interacting with it, they’re seeing it from a very different viewpoint.” 

Donovan is using a participatory research method for his study. This method focuses on working collaboratively with the sample – that sample being the younger city residents surrounded by these upcoming technologies. Through his collaborative research, Donovan hopes to better understand smart homes and cities from a youth perspective. 

Based on findings from previous research, Donovan hopes to build upon his knowledge of youth and their understanding of digital technology, specifically as it relates to their understanding of privacy.

Donovan’s previous research involved working with teenagers to design a social network. “The idea was, what happens if you take the plastic consumer and make them a producer of one of these digital products? What kind of privacy questions and issues of security pop up,” Donovan said.  

Donovan found that through this process, teenagers expanded their understanding of the digital world. “When young people were given some real ability to design their digital environments, it expanded the number of questions they were asking,” Donovan continued. “It didn’t really make them scared about their privacy, it made them much more informed in talking about what degree of privacy they may or may not have in any situation.”

Moving into his current research, Donovan hopes to continue to see students become more aware of their online privacy through understanding smart home and smart city devices.

“A lot of these apps tie into the technologies and footage from someone who has a Ring doorbell, for example, where they put the footage into an app when reporting different things,” Donovan continued. “But people who don’t have a Ring doorbell or don’t have smart home technology, can still have that app installed on their phone.”

The growing digital world reaches everyone, no matter how many devices, services, or apps they use. Donovan said, “[Smart homes and smart cities are] becoming a bigger issue. … What I’m curious about moving forward is how do we extend the idea of understanding how a social network like Facebook works, to understanding how your house is infused with these products run by Amazon and Apple?” 

Donovan’s work will help younger generations understand the power of digital media. It is a difficult task, but an important one, especially as the world has shifted to being online this past year. 

“It’s alive,” Donovan said about smart technologies. “It’s alive and it’s mostly unregulated. It’s really hard to understand, because it’s so mystified.” Donovan’s work will hopefully uncover some of that mystery.

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