Data Walk across Brussels

In March, I took a group of students from Nottingham Trent University on a research trip to Europe to explore ‘Ai and Social Exclusion.’ This is organised by NTU Global and is aimed primarily at students from socially and economically deprived areas in Nottinghamshire. As part of our trip, we went on a Data Walk across Brussels. This was part of the ‘Data and the City’ series and was kindly suggested to us by Tyler Reigeluth who we had previously met at Université Lille. The Illustrations are ‘freehand’ by Ella Rae Rowland, one of the members of our group.    

There are 100s of these devices spread across the Brussels region. The one we were shown was attached to a lamppost and at about head height. Air quality is measured with the Air Quality Index (AQI) which works like a thermometer that runs from 0 to 500 degrees. You can access data about air quality in Brussels and how this compares to WHO standards at This includes a real-time air pollution map. It’s the sharing of this data that helps create a smart city and enables local government to implement steps to improve ratings.

Mobile phone signals are tracked by the m2 to see how long people loiter outside a particular area. I think this is done via your normal signal rather than a free wi-fi at the location. This data is sold to businesses to inform strategy, such as replacing a window display to see if this lures people in. Public data gathering should include specific information about who is collecting the data, for what purposes, and how you can learn more. It did have a QR code detailing some information, but not enough.     

This gathers data on when a bin is full to stop rubbish spilling out onto the pavement. It’s a good initiative, but there are problems. For example, the data may inform a company the bin is full but there is no way of enforcing them to come and empty it as it makes economic sense to empty all bins in the area on the same day. Given the size of the bin, it’s easy to see it will get filled up daily. So what’s the point of collecting this data?  

This device detects light and changes the brightness accordingly. This has numerous benefits, such as energy efficiency and will help Brussels achieve its target of reducing energy by 25% by 2035. Lighting can also be adjusted to create safer spaces in the evening. This technology is excellent, but it could have more utility. For example, the post could go further into the ground to measure water levels.   

Belgium updated its laws on surveillance technology in 2020 in response to the increase in smartphone-related security devices. Camera doorbells need to be registered and positioned to the side of the door so that only 30% of the public are visible. Presumably this conforms to GDPR rules and regulations. Brussels is the heart of the EU and so I was surprised basics rules were ignored. If they can’t enforce it, who can? There are other issues with doorbells, not least hacking and gaining data on who enters a building. And who owns the data collected? Is it the person who buys the doorbell, the company that provided it, the building owner? Recently, Amazon passed on data from their Ring doorbell without the owners’ consent and Oxford Crown Court upheld claims against a U.K. resident for invading the privacy of a neighbour using Ring doorbell cameras.

Total Energies are one of the main providers of electric car charging points in Brussels. Understanding this demand helps councils develop their renewable strategy. However, this also raises the question of where they are positioned, and who can access them. I think this spot was for specific clients rather than public use.

Computer management systems in cars provide lot of data that can help councils identify and address problems. For example, if cars keep braking in a specific area, then perhaps the speed limit needs adjusting, or potholes need filling. The question is whether this information should be exchanged when a car is being charging and whether drivers are aware that such data is being collected in the beginning.         

This was an example of best practice in terms of surveillance technology. It has a big sign and clearly identifies who has put it there, what it is doing, and how you can find out more information about data collection and use. Given this was situated at a bank, it is a reasonable use of CCTV. However, Belgium police began to use Clearview Ai facial recognition tools in 2021 and this has raised various privacy concerns about who, when and where this technology is being used. Hence, the need for clear signage such as this.

Special thanks to FARI – AI for the Common Good Institute and Lea Rogliano for organizing the walk.

AI Up Mi Duck – interactive fiction game exploring transhumanism

An interactive fiction game exploring transhumanism, poverty, and whether the Broadmarsh Centre will ever get finished.

It’s 2123 and life has got a bit rubbish. Humans are unemployed because AI does everything for them. This means there isn’t much to do other than sit inside and watch telly; Fortunately, there’s l-o-a-d-s of channels.  Lee Vitaht is a youth from Tip Valley, Nottingham, a slum area where the unemployed are forced to live until society can find a use for them. One day he enters a competition to appear on the Reality TV programme Live Island with the chance to win immortality. Lee Vitaht would love to live forever so he can finally witness Forest win the Prem and possibly see the Broadmarsh Centre flattened. But as Reality TV host Android Marr explains, ‘we work in immortality, not miracles.’

AI Up Mi Duck is an interactive fiction game that can be downloaded from It explores the impact of technology on our lives and issues of transhumanism – the idea that we can somehow become untethered from our flesh and live forever. Nobody is quite sure exactly what transhumanism means or how it will work, but it’s got a lot of people interested and generated a load of cults, with Ray Kurzweil, author of The Age of Spiritual Machines (2000), the alpha prophet.

The hope is that emerging technologies such as genetic engineering, AI, cryonics, and nanotechnology can somehow help humans stop ageing and relegate death as a 20th century inconvenience. One of the most extreme versions of this ideal is that our consciousness can be downloaded and rebooted into some kind of external mainframe computer. Let’s just hope the broadband connection is stronger than my Giff Gaff connection. But consciousness is not a tangible thing like a foot or finger and so whether you can download something that is difficult to define or locate is a bit of a challenge.

To help me research the game, I read Matt O’Connell’s To be a Machine (2017), and discovered that the idea of connecting ourselves to a wider network may not be that farfetched. The body, after all, is a series of electrical circuits. If this could be emulated somehow, it would completely redefine what it means to be human. For those who can’t wait for such innovations, fear not. You can get your frozen corpse stored in a massive cryogenic warehouse in the hope that one day medicine and technology will be able to reanimate the brain, thereby providing a second chance at life. Then there’s the hubris of the ‘life hack’ brigade who think that a strict diet and exercise will help prolong life. If getting up at 4a.m every day to do 1,000 press-ups while binging on raw food is the key to eternal life, it’s a no from me. It’s the quality rather than the quantity of life that matters.

In writing this game with animation students from Confetti, one thing became abundantly clear: I don’t want to live forever. It would be tedious. There’s only so many times you can get Homer Simpson socks for Christmas or watch fireworks over Trent Bridge before the novelty wears off. There’s something humbling about coming to terms with your mortality that helps you appreciate your allotted three score years and ten.

We live in precarious times and doom and gloom is everywhere. But nothing depresses me more than a social media post warning ‘watch till the end’. This is the end of civilisation, at least as I know it. The immediate gratification of digital has eroded our attention spans so much that even a fifteen second Tik Tok is too long. If you’re still reading this article, btw, well done. Your head must be absolutely throbbing.

The reason I find this future so alarming is because I have become an alien in my own life – a fate that awaits us all. I’m an analogue kid who grew up in a world of three TV channels, where people talked to each other rather than ‘liked’ each other, and the closest thing to the internet was teletext. The world – as wonderful as it may be – is completely unrecognisable. Imagine that feeling for eternity.

In some respects, we’ve entered a kind of Digital Dark Ages. We no longer know what ‘truth’ is, who is observing us, or what sophisticated algorithms are doing with our data. We now have two lives – a ‘real’ physical life and an online life. Is it any wonder so many people are anxious or suffering from mental health issues when our very being is split in two?

We’re digital pioneers in a Brave New World where AI will radically transform every aspect of life as we know it. This change will be as profound as the invention of fire, the wheel, and the industrial revolution. But future generations will look back on us as digital illiterates, who *scoff* communicated via a phone. Lol.

I may not want to live forever, but I do admire people who will do whatever they can to squeeze out a bit more juice. In this, the transhumanism movement is a symbol of optimism (or delusion) and may very well represent the next stage of evolution. Good luck to them.

Ai Up Mi Duck is free to download but a donation would be nice – just so I can eat.