FWDThinking Episode 16: Digital Trust for Places and Routines

Alistair Croll in conversation with Jackie Lu.

Published On Aug 16, 2021

All opinions expressed in these episodes are personal and do not reflect the opinions of the organizations for which our guests work.


DTPR is one of the most exciting ideas I’ve heard about in a long time.

The standard, Digital Trust for Places and Routines, makes the invisible layers of public spaces visible and accountable to the people who inhabit them.

Saying that “we live in a digital world” is almost a cliché. We spent a massive amount of our lives online even before the pandemic, and social distancing and remote work have dramatically increased this trend. Making sure we have rights in that digital realm is a priority, and not a new idea: I gave a talk at Strata six years ago arguing that AI should work for us, not on us, and that nobody should know more about you than you do.

But I was myopic, because there are two digital worlds. One world we travel to consensually, when we open a browser or unlock our phones. The other we walk in constantly with little recourse or awareness.

The world around us is filled with sensors, from cameras to microphones to those little strips that count cars on a road. This “physical digital” realm, packed with an Internet of Things, is both pervasive and unaccountable. When you walk past a security camera, or swipe a badge to unlock a door, you don’t know how that information is being used, or by whom.

And that’s a big problem.

If you knew who had installed a camera, what it was recording, and who had access to that data, it would make the invisible visible. It would create accountability. Better yet, you might be able to access that data if your tax dollars had paid to collect it, and answer questions—how many people crossed the intersection, on average? When is the store busiest?—in ways that could change public policy.

Bringing digital transparency to public spaces and real-world routines is the problem that Jackie Lu, Patrick Keenan, and Adrienne Schmoeker are trying to tackle. Combining their backgrounds in Civic Tech, design, and startups, they’ve defined—and tested—a way to identify digital infrastructure and let denizens learn about it. Bryan Boyer, Director of the Urban Technology degree at University of Michigan and former Helsinki Design Lab member, has written a great post on the challenges and opportunities of digitally understandable public spaces.The team at Helpful Places—as the folks behind DTPR are called—hasn’t just designed a taxonomy for labeling the invisible digital world around us. In 2020, they piloted a test in Boston that identified digital infrastructure.

Dtpr Blog Post

Denizens who load the page identified by these stickers are taken to information on the sensors with which they’re being monitored, showing what’s collected, who owns the data, and how it’s analyzed and stored. That’s a great short-term goal, but their longer-term vision is even more ambitious: They want to connect this information to personal agents who can show us the digital affordances available in a physical space. One of Jackie’s examples includes accessing a library, reserving a table at a restaurant, and reviewing a summary of your day to better understand how you interacted with the invisible digital half of public spaces.

But I think there’s an even bigger aspect to this. Our trust in government is at an all-time low, with many questioning the value of collective action or shared infrastructure. As more of the services that government offers become digital, making the invisible not only visible, but accountable and useful is essential for the public trust. Imagine seeing a sensor, knowing what it’s for, how much of your taxpayer dollars paid for it, and an analysis of the information it’s collecting. That’s informational democracy, and DTPR lays out a clear idea for how to bridge digital and physical worlds in this way.

There are many hurdles to overcome, of course. For one thing, not everyone has the tools and devices to access digital information, so ensuring it doesn’t further widen the digital divide is paramount (but simply labeling that a digital layer exists is a good first step.) For another, vendors who make notoriously insecure IoT devices may be loath to support standards that hold them accountable. But if public policy requires DTPR the way we require GDPR for data in Europe or LEED certification for green buildings, it could quickly become a mandatory requirement for government buildings and public sector data collection, and drag the private sector along with it.

DTPR is an exciting initiative that crosses the political aisle, and Jackie and team have done the hard work of thinking it through and prototyping it. They’re running a fall cohort for startups, tech firms, and governments if you want to get involved. But first, you should watch this interview with Jackie where we explore the need for this standard, and how the team designed a vocabulary for the digital layer of public space.

Apply to be a part of a DTPR implementation cohort from Fall’21 through Winter’22 guided by the Helpful Places team led by Jackie Lu. Applications are reviewed on a rolling basis through September 1st. Apply here and contact dtpr@helpfulplaces.com with any questions!