The Transactionalization of Infrastructure as a Case for Accountability-Oriented Design

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The Internet of Things has complicated the network of relationships behind both the physical and digital urban infrastructures we use everyday and it raises new questions of ownership, governance and control. Dietmar Offenhuber proposes an accountability-oriented design approach, which calls attention to issues of governance through the design of objects in everyday environments.

Whether we talk about street lights, roads, communication systems, or the electrical grid; questions of ownership, governance, and control are complicated for urban infrastructure. Urban systems are not run by a single entity but more generally by a hybrid network of many actors: public institutions, banks and pension funds, utilities, community organizations, security companies, technical contractors and the users themselves. The Internet of Things has complicated the pubic infrastructure and therefore the networks behind them even further. Street lights are becoming sensors gathering data from passers-by, raising questions of how to implement data governance, stewardship and accountability among the parties involved. The sensors and the related issues however are invisible to the pedestrian on the sidewalk. Infrastructure appears as standardized and unobtrusive.

Street lights are becoming sensors gathering data from passers-by.

In this text, I propose accountability-oriented design as a way to call attention to issues of governance through the design of objects in everyday environments. For a long time the connection between design and governance was ignored but recently it has been gaining traction. For instance, the anti-corruption expert Dieter Zinnbauer uses the term “ambient accountability” for efforts to bring accountability-relevant information directly into the physical environment where it is needed. [1] He cites the “Know Your Rights” murals found in low-income New York neighborhoods to prepare residents for encounters with the police and the “Passenger Bill of Rights” found on the back seats of taxi cabs, as examples. In the example of the sensor-equipped street lights, accountability-oriented design addresses questions such as: How could a light pole recording MAC addresses signal the presence and activity of sensors to passers-by? How can users easily follow the path of data and identify the accountable parties? And how can processes of data collection become a visible part of public discourse?

Complex relationships of accountability
The difficulty of making infrastructure governance transparent starts with the design process. New systems never emerge from a clean slate; their development is a collective effort that requires large initial investments, therefore many public and private actors have a stake in the game. Private utilities are rarely able to build new systems without the support of public funds. When private cell phone companies entered the stage during the 90s, they had to rely on public subsidies and cable infrastructure already in place for connecting their base stations. But also cities increasingly rely on private companies for rendering core public services such as street cleaning and waste collection to constituents. Responsibilities can become unclear in this triangular exchange. If constituents are not satisfied with a service, should they complain to the service provider or to the city?

These relationships of accountability have become even more complex since urban data collection and the Internet of Things became part of the picture. Previously, street lights and electricity infrastructure ranked relatively low on the totem pole of local government agendas and were outsourced to private utilities. But once data became an important commodity and it became clear that street lamps and urban furniture provide an excellent base for data collection infrastructure, priorities changed and many cities tried to buy back such hardware. Sensors on light poles, urban furniture and waste bins are increasingly used for measuring pedestrian activity, traffic and parking occupancy, environmental conditions and detecting emergencies such as gunshots. In the context of infrastructure governance, this raises a number of new issues.

From public to private good
Some of these issues are familiar topics. This includes the question of data ownership as public transportation systems become more integrated with private platforms such as Uber. This also includes the issue of privacy – in particular, public anonymity since we are talking about public space. A less familiar issue – and the one I want to discuss further in this article – is our changing notion of a public good. Sensors not only generate valuable data but also immediately allow for the minute measurement of service consumption. Just as smart thermostats enable the granular measurement of electricity consumption patterns in my private home, urban sensors could enable us to quantify how much I use the public road system or how much public street light I benefit from. Roads and street lights are considered public services not only because society has at some point agreed that this is a good idea, but also because there has was no practical way of measuring and billing individual consumption.

Despite the mass of data accumulated, infrastructure will not become more transparent.

For an economist, a public good is defined as “non-rivalrous” and “non-excludable,” meaning, respectively, that one can consume it without reducing its value to others and that nobody can be excluded from its consumption. While public roads were never truly non-rivalrous (think of traffic jams and potholes), sensor networks and algorithmic settlement systems such as the Bitcoin blockchain provide the tools that can make physical roads excludable by measuring and billing the distance driven, and if necessary enforcing violations. [2]

Since infrastructure consumption can be measured at such a granular level, every miniscule unit of consumption can also be billed—let us say 0.0001 Euros for every meter, or 0.1 Euros for every kilometer. In economic terms, infrastructure has now become a purely private good – it is no longer a public good. However, not only can consumption be granularly measured but also the optimal price may be evaluated. The same service can be billed at different rates and times depending on the groups of customers. Such pricing strategies are not new. Over a decade ago, Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin described in their book how such “unbundling” of infrastructure reinforces inequality. [3] But what is new is the high granularity of measurement that allows for dynamic pricing which is algorithmically governed.

Accountability-oriented design
This new panoptic view of infrastructure consumption has paradoxical implications. Despite the mass of data accumulated, infrastructure will not become more transparent. This will remain the case even if all collected data were to be instantly made public. Due to dynamic pricing and user profiling, it becomes impossible to maintain an overview of this situation. I call this paradox “opacity through transparency.” [4] This opacity not only affects the user but to some extent also the governor. The Bitcoin blockchain is again an interesting example. On the one hand, it is radically transparent. Every transaction is on public record in the distributed ledger described as the blockchain. But the true underlying power dynamics and their actors remain invisible.

In economic terms, infrastructure has now become a purely private good – it is no longer a public good.

If even open data and transparency offer no solution, what should be done? If governance and power are, according to Michel Foucault, connected to questions of visibility, then governance is also a design problem. A step to address this issue is what I call “accountability-oriented design.” It does not currently exist as a field but many building blocks are available for the design practitioner. I want to describe accountability-oriented design through the following, extendable list of properties:

  • Accountability-oriented design calls attention to issues of governance through the design of objects in everyday environments.
    Accountability-oriented design encompasses both the physical and the digital domains and it concerns devices themselves as well as their relationship to the world. Accountability-oriented design principles could mean that every networked sensor in public space is both physically visible and virtually findable. In a simple case, every sensor embedded in the environment has a telling SSID that can be read using the Wi-Fi scanner on a smartphone. It could also mean that each networked sensor acts as a small server that allows people to connect and access relevant information after the physical design has alerted them to its presence.
  • Accountability-oriented design makes systems legible. It is not limited to the technical issues of a single device, but considers the whole ecology of objects, actors, and purposes. It identifies the actors who are in charge. Every system can be read from multiple perspectives and accountability-oriented design ideally allows multiple readings. Such perspectives can include: 1) the structure of the system, i.e. how things are connected. 2) The processes and flow of the system. 3) The presence and activity of other users. 4) The consequences of their actions. 5) The governance of the system, and 6) the designer’s own role in the system. During the past several years, citizen feedback systems have evolved from simple mechanisms for reporting potholes or malfunctioning street lights to platforms for observing infrastructure maintenance in action. This shows us how our own reports are acted upon, what other people think is important, the priorities of the city, and finally, the processes of repair and maintenance in real-time. Websites such as plowNYC [5] show real-time maps of municipal snow plowing during a snowstorm, while other platforms such as snowcrew [6] enables neighbors to coordinate for mutual assistance in snow removal.
  • Accountability-oriented design is seamful rather than seamless. Digital gadgets are generally designed to provide a seamless experience that lets the user forget underlying technical complexities. Seamful design, on the other hand, means calling attention to the seams—the borders, boundaries and hidden processes. [7] A login/password request intentionally breaks the seamless experience of surfing the web, for example, alerting us to be mindful about our privacy.
  • Accountability-oriented design does not explain, it shows. The LEDs on an Internet router do not explain how the device works or who is using the system. However, they give a sense of activity, even if their exact meaning is not understood. If I catch a glimpse of the LEDs on my cable modem going wild in the middle of the night, I might get curious about what is happening on my network. Explaining means delving into the idiosyncratic taxonomies and legal details – all those things in end-user agreements that we never read. Such specific information is indispensable for transparency but it does not create awareness. Creating awareness is a task of design.
  • Accountability-oriented design shapes public discourse by managing visibility. In all digitally mediated civic platforms, the design of the platform – its input and output interfaces, its language and systems of categorization, its affordances for communication – shape the quality, direction and tone of the discourse. Accountability-oriented design makes it clear that interfaces are never neutral but involve others actors in the conversation.
  • Finally, accountability-oriented design acknowledges its own limitations. Some things have to remain hidden in order to work. A whistleblower platform that does not allow anonymous submissions will not inspire trust to potential users and digital voting platforms remain highly problematic for similar reasons. Often the responsible solution is to avoid collecting data at all. Accountability-oriented design is therefore not only about showing what happens but also about what does not happen.

In all of these aspects, accountability-oriented design addresses a particular obstacle for effective open data and transparency initiatives, namely, the different nature of physical and digital public space. Information is increasingly shared through open data portals and API, yet remains invisible. While in physical space we cannot always choose whom we might run into or what we are exposed to, in digital public space we can only find what we are specifically looking for. While this is not necessarily a problem for dedicated information activists, it limits the visibility of issues relevant for a large part of society. By connecting open data repositories to their relevant objects and situations, accountability-oriented design makes it possible for a pedestrian to “bump” into a relevant data repository. Such physical and symbolic serendipity is one of the prerequisites for establishing a meaningful democratic discourse around the protocols, algorithms and devices that surround us.


  1. Zinnbauer, Dieter. “Fighting Corruption Where and When It Happens — Ambient Accountability.” In Accountability Technologies: Tools for Asking Hard Questions, edited by Dietmar Offenhuber and Katja Schechtner, 60–71. Vienna: Ambra V, 2013.
  2. See for example Rosenberg, Scott. “There’s a Blockchain for That! The Code That Secures Bitcoin Could Also Power an Alternate Internet. First, Though, It Has to Work.” Medium, January 13, 2015.
  3. Graham, Steve, and Simon Marvin. Splintering Urbanism: Networked Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities and the Urban Condition. Routledge, 2001.
  4. Offenhuber, Dietmar. “Infrastructure Legibility—A Comparative Study of Open311 Citizen Feedback Systems.” Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society, 2014.
  7. MacColl, I., M. Chalmers, Y. Rogers, and H. Smith. “Seamful Ubiquity: Beyond Seamless Integration.” In Workshop at UbiComp, Vol. 2, 2002.
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