How drones use algorithms to govern your life

How do drones use computational methods such as algorithms to govern your life? Here are ten ways.

Many people think (non-military) drones are only used by hobbyists, and then only to fly small Go-Pro cameras around.

This is mistaken.

Following is a partial listing of other ways drones perform algorithmic calculations on people. All of these are already here. The lesson is not that drones can do this and it’s about drones; rather the lesson is that drones are being used in algorithmic governance more generally.

These are examples from my files. Mostly these are non-military/intelligence usages but that distinction is not entirely tenable given the streams of expertise and knowledge between military and non-military drone research.

  1. Drones can assess abnormal or “suspicious” behavior.

    Japanese security company Secom, starting in December, will offer a surveillance service using drones designed to detect and track suspicious vehicles and people. The drones can also take pictures of license plates and intruders’ faces as they enter factory grounds or shops at night….

    Odubiyi said there was urgent need to upgrade and add to the existing 1,000 CCTV cameras in the state to complement the other crime prevention initiatives of the government which include the Security Trust Fund, Street Signage, House Numbering and the provision of three-digit number for emergency calls….

    This scheme [ALPR but could equally well be drones] makes, literally, a state issue out of legal travel to arbitrary places deemed by some — but not by a court, and without due process — to be “related” to crime in general, not to any specific crime.

  2. Drones can monitor the environment using a variety of sensors.

    I watched as the drone’s gas monitoring sensor was checked before the aircraft was launched by catapult for a 20-minute flight around the boundaries of the site….

    A drone can be nearly any size, from as small as an insect to as large as a 757 passenger jet. It can be outfitted with technologies including high-powered cameras, thermal imaging devices, license plate readers, laser radar, and acoustical eavesdropping, see-through imaging, scent detection, and signals interception devices.

  3. Drones can physically and forcibly shepherd you, move you along, or prevent your movements. A variety of levels of force can be used.

    Some in the law enforcement community, but not all, think there may be a time where it may be appropriate to have non-lethal weapons on a drone—such things as tear gas, pepper spray, etc., where a drone will be able to fly into a location where somebody is firing from a concealed position. Or a barricaded person in the drone would be able to drop a canister of pepper spray or tear gas to get a person to come out of hiding.

  4. Algorithms will be used in drone traffic management (UTM).

    Engineers at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, are developing UTM cloud-based software tools in four segments of progressively more capable levels. They design each “technical capability level” for a different operational environment that requires development of proposed uses, software, procedures and policies to enable safe operation, with Technical Capability Level One focusing on a rural environment. With continued development, the Technical Capability Level One system would enable UAS operators to file flight plans reserving airspace for their operations and provide situational awareness about other operations planned in the area.

  5. Drones are being used by law enforcement and emergency services.

    For first responders, surveillance teams and investigators, high-quality aerial imagery provides the real-time intelligence needed to assess a situation immediately, ensure safety on the ground, and capture detailed evidence and forensics.

  6. Drones are part of Big Data and data analytics.

    Keep that in mind as you examine the secret ISR study, and you’ll see that the Pentagon’s drone program uses data analytics in almost precisely the same way IBM encourages corporations to use it to track customers. The only significant difference comes at the very end of the drone process, when the customer is killed.

  7. Drones–and robots–are being equipped with algorithms that can predict your next move before you even make it.

    The algorithm, by two University of Illinois researchers, opens the door to software that can guess where a person is headed—reaching for a gun, steering a car into armored gate—milliseconds before the act plays out.

  8. Drones can learn to sense-and-avoid.

    One, Bio Inspired Technologies of Boise, Idaho, is tackling the problem with a hard-wired neural network, a type of device that is good at learning things. This can, the firm’s engineers believe, be trained to recognise and avoid aerial obstacles. Alternatively, a conventional, if high-end, computer can be programmed with algorithms predesigned to recognise and evade threats, by understanding how objects visible to a drone’s camera are moving.

  9. The variety of uses for drones is big and ever-expanding.

    These involved areas as diverse as agriculture (farmers use drones to monitor crop growth, insect infestations and areas in need of watering at a fraction of the cost of manned aerial surveys); land-surveying; film-making (some of the spectacular footage in “Avengers: Age of Ultron” was shot from a drone, which could fly lower and thus collect more dramatic pictures than a helicopter); security; and delivering things…Because drones are cheap, geographers who could never afford conventional aerial surveys are able to use them to track erosion, follow changes in rivers’ sources and inspect glaciers. Archaeologists and historians are taking advantage of software that permits drones fitted with ordinary digital cameras to produce accurate 3D models of landscapes or buildings. This lets them map ancient ruins and earthworks. Drones can also go where manned aircraft cannot, including the craters of active volcanoes and the interiors of caves. A drone operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, in Massachusetts, has even snatched breath samples from spouting whales for DNA analysis. And drones are, as might be expected, particularly useful for studying birds.

  10. Drones are surveillant. As such they are ideal for all sorts of new mappings. This raises privacy concerns.

    We need to impose rules, limits and regulations on UAVs as well in order to preserve the privacy Americans have always expected and enjoyed.

What we should realize if that if it can be done it will be done, as long as it is legal (and often that is very much an unknown or grey area).

Our @TheAAG panel on Algorithmic Governance, San Fran

A panel session at the Association of American Geographers Annual Conference, San Francisco, March/April 2016. Organized by Andrea Miller (UC Davis) and Jeremy Crampton (Kentucky).

With Louise Amoore (Durham), Emily Kaufman (Kentucky), Kate Crawford (Microsoft/MIT/NYU), Agnieszka Leszczynski (Auckland), Andrea Miller (UC Davis), Ian Shaw (Glasgow).

“It’s time for government to enter the age of big data. Algorithmic regulation is an idea whose time has come.” Tim O’Reilly.

This panel will address the increasing concern and interest in what we here label “algorithmic governance.” Drawing on Foucault’s governmentality and Deleuzian assemblage theory, as well as the nascent field of critical Big Data studies, we are interested in investigating the manifold ways that algorithms and code/space enable practices of governance that ascribes risk, suspicion and positive value in geographic contexts.

This value often takes the form of money. For instance, Facebook’s average revenue per user (ARPU) in Q2 2015 was $2.76 globally and as much as $9.30 in North America, while, according to Apple, there are over 680,000 apps using location on iOS. However, pecuniary value derived from spatial Big Data must also be understood as inseparable from capacities of risk and suspicion simultaneously generated and distributed through data-driven relationships. More generally, the purpose of these data is two-fold. On the one hand, they allow risk and threats to be managed, and on the other hand, by drawing on these new subjectivities, they increasingly generate new modes of prediction and control. Thus, algorithmic life can be understood as “data + control,” or to use a Foucauldian term, “data + conduct of conduct,” or what we can call “algorithmic governance.”

Following Rob Kitchin’s suggestion that algorithms can be investigated across a range of valences—including examining code, doing ethnographies of coding teams or geolocational app-makers, and exploring algorithms’ socio-technological material assemblages (Kitchin, 2014), we convene this panel to explore some of the following questions in a spatial or geolocational register:

  • How can we best pay attention to the spaces of governance where algorithms operate, and are contested?
  • What are the spatial dimensions of the data-driven subject? How do modes of algorithmic modulation and control impact understandings of categories such as race and gender and delimit the spatial possibilities of what Jasbir Puar has called the body’s “capacity” for emergence, affectivity, and movement (Puar, 2009)?
  • Are algorithms deterministic, or are there spaces of contestation or counter-algorithms?
  • How does algorithmic governance inflect and augment practices of policing and militarization?
  • What are the most productive theoretical tools available for studying algorithmic data, and can we speak across the disciplines?
  • How are visualizations such as maps implicated by or for algorithms?
  • Is there a genealogy of algorithms that can be traced prior to current forms of technology (to a more “proto-GIS” era for example)? How does this tie with other histories of computation?


Kitchin, R. 2014. “Thinking Critically About and Researching Algorithms.” Programmable City Working Paper 5.

O’Reilly, T. 2013. “Open Data and Algorithmic Regulation.” In B. Goldstein and L. Dyson (Eds)., Beyond Transparency. San Francisco: Code for America Press.

Puar, Jasbir. 2009. “Prognosis Time: Towards a Geopolitics of Affect, Debility and Capacity.” Women and Performance, 19.2: 161-172.

Reflections on Philip K. Dick


Amazon have just released their adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle. David Gill, at San Francisco State University, was recently interviewed by Salon about the show. He makes some interesting observations that I think bear examination:

The thing it seems to be lacking is the sense of a square peg being pounded into a round hole. In other words, there’s this subtle notion in the novel that the Nazi victory has completely paralyzed the American dream and these people are all struggling to find a new moral compass to guide their lives by. In this, the American Dream has been subverted — so what we’re gonna see in the show is like an American Revolution where they rise against their Nazi oppressors

In other words, the TV version has bottled the basic premise of the book and has instead turned it into a good guys vs. bad guys scenario. He adds:

I’d be okay with that, but it seems they’ve really shifted the focus of the project itself and are really only interested in showing us fascist imagery juxtaposed with American iconography.

This is a pity as Ridley Scott is attached to the project as an Executive Producer which doesn’t bode well for the rumored sequel to Blade Runner.

Perhaps this doesn’t matter as any tv show must be different from a book version for reasons of pacing and drama. Although I do think it’s a mistake to think tv can’t be subtle–I just watched Nicola Walker in two very good shows. River, with Stellan Skarsgård, and Unforgotten with Sanjeev Bhasker. Both were moving and fascinating shows which explored emotional depths with little or no action.

But I happened to ask my GIS class this week if they’d heard of Philip K. Dick. No one had, until I started mentioning movies, some of which they recognized. So what this means is that PKD is little read by the current generation, but more likely get their knowledge via movies and tv. When the subtleties are ironed out, this isn’t necessarily good.

Take Blade Runner itself. Again Gill makes a good observation when he says:

As far as accurately translating his ideas and dynamics onto the screen, I don’t think anyone has been successful. “Blade Runner” inverts the moral of [his novel] “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” — instead of being a story about how humans can be like androids, it’s about how androids can be like humans.

In some ways this is the more devastating critique. Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was not about simulation, but the potential loss of the human, and, more generally of life itself. As key aspect to the book is the loss or lack of actual biological non-human life due to climate change/war and its replacement by artificial replacements. So this was about diminishment of human life as we are no loner able to have relationships with other species (instead there are artificial turtles, spiders, owls etc). Everybody is trying to get off-world as the earth is dying.


Scene from Blade Runner


Beijing, 2013

This is why, the book’s other half of the story, which is not in the movie at all is so critical. This is the idea of salvation or at least escape offered by Mercerism; an invented “religion” based literally on empathy for others (you hold onto empathy boxes which merge your affective body with others). When you grasp the handles of the box, you join communally with Wilbur Mercer, who is on a seemingly never-ending trek up a mountain (iirc). Unfortunately, Mercer is exposed as a fraud, an actor by the name of Al Jerry (think ‘pataphysics and Al Jarry). But this doesn’t matter. It’s not whether Jerry is divine or not, but rather the affective connections he enables or guides. As an android hunter, Deckard is suffering from affective flatness, to such an extent of course that there is a famous indeterminancy about whether he himself is an android. Again, the point is not whether he is or is not. It’s about what people’s/androids/animals affective capacities are–a becoming-animal if you like. (My use of Deleuzian language here is deliberate: PKD, J.G. Ballard and especially Christopher Priest are amazing writers of affect. I’m currently re-reading Priest’s best novel, The Affirmation and suggest you start with that if you’re unfamiliar with Priest.)

I’ll watch the Amazon series when I get a chance (I saw the pilot last year and visually it’s very impressive). I’d recommend River or Unforgotten first though.

Consider Smell


Wish I could be at this event!

Originally posted on The Smell of Evolution:

Tomorrow, my colleagues and I will engage members of the public to consider smell from the molecular level to the streets of London! Following two events in Nottingham, tomorrow’s event will focus on a workshop format in the morning where Zoologist/Behavourial Geneticist Matthew Cobb of the University of Manchester and I will give an interactive lecture/workshop on the molecular level of smell from odorants to perception with an evolutionary spin. We’ll talk about our recent paper showing how one gene linked to smell may have been selected in Eurasian populations and contemplate what the evolutionary setting for smell selection may have been. After a small tastes multisensory lunch, our group will take a smell walk led by Designer Kate McLean of Canterbury Christ Church University ( and Geographer Julia Feuer-Cotter of the University of Nottingham. For  more info see:

View original

President’s globe

The President’s globe was made by Arthur Robinson and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) Map Division in 1942. There are several versions of the globe available for public viewing, as I’ve noted before. One is at the American Geographical Society Library (AGSL) in Milwaukee, and one is at the Library of Congress.

This is the picture most often reproduced of the globe with Roosevelt looking at it rather intently:

The Roosevelt Library and Museum also has a version, presumably the same one as above and have provided a rather nice picture of it in color:

Here’s their short write up about it.

Peter Gould: Extract from seminar

I’m going through some of my Peter Gould material, and I came across this passage which Gould wrote for a seminar in the spring of 1987:

To what extent does the ‘geographic world’ into which you are thrown shape you? I often wonder what would have happened to me if I had gone to Wisconsin or Chicago in 1956. I am quite certain that my ‘career trajectory’ would have been different. The graduate years are absolutely crucial–in the literal sense of crux, a crossing point. Obviously, part of the way you practice as geographers will be shaped by your own desires and abilities; but, equally clearly, you will start to look at the world in a particular way shaped by the people with whom you come into contact. Or, of  course, you may react against them. But in reacting against them, you also make certain choices that would not be there if they did not exist to react against. Try to reflect deeply upon the ‘world’ that has shaped, and is still shaping, you. There is an intriguing question here of how we might describe the ‘unfolding’ of a discipline, how we might somehow capture and illuminate the intellectual influences, connections, and linkages. This is something I have thought about for a number of years now.

(Edit: this is from a large sheaf of writings, or more accurately what Gould called “raw, dictated notes” of his comments on the then-recently published book by Ron Johnston On Human Geography, 1986 Basil Blackwell.)

Gould went to Northwestern University for his doctorate, where he famously helped instigate the “quantitative revolution” (a term he disliked, see his paper “The Augean Period” for details). The title of that paper refers to one of the labors of Hercules (Herakles), namely shoveling out the sh*t from the stables, which gives you an indication of what Gould thought was an appropriate name for the intellectual task of that period. In the end Hercules diverted two rivers to do the task.

In the passage above, Gould gives us a flavor his style; at once pretentious and sincere. The concept of being “thrown into a world not of our own making” as he frequently stated it, is alluded to in the first sentence. Gould derives this from Heidegger, specifically Being and Time. In the last two decades of his life he intensively studied Heidegger with his friend and colleague at Penn State, Prof. Joseph Kockelmans, a Heidegger specialist. The concern of the passage however is the question of how we are shaped during our life trajectory, and how much of this of course is contingent, or could have gone another way. Gould was too clever to be a determinist, and this sense of other possibilities is very redolent of an enduring concern often expressed today (think of Deleuze’s virtual and actual for example).

The other aspect of this passage worth highlighting is how he invites others (in this case the members of the seminar) to reflect and think for themselves. This is another contradiction of Gould in addition being both a “space cadet” and a scholar of one of the most challenging philosophers of the twentieth century. That is, he was quite set in his patterns of thought (and had no reticence in proclaiming them; often he would remark that the job of a professor was to profess). Yet (at least rhetorically) he constantly tried to open up avenues of thought and inquiry.

Let me give an example. A telling moment appears in one of his books where he describes giving a lecture and getting a response during Q&A from an older member of the audience who appears to be struggling with the fact that Gould said something quite different ten years ago. Gould remarks something along the lines, “for a moment I thought he was dead… serious.” This is pure Gould, slightly mean and yet in a nose-tweaking way with an underlying thoughtful point about constant reflection etc.

I can’t post this small reflection on Gould without noting that during the 1990s he ran into some significant criticism from feminist scholars. Gould took this in good spirit (I mean in print; I don’t have any insight on his personal life), making fun of himself and the sexist cartoon he had earlier published in The Geographer at Work (1985). This was a book drawn from and mostly engaged with people in his life trajectory, with little pictures of the people at the side of the text. It was not great optics. Notably, it’s mostly white guys. It’s not that Gould was unable to recognize women geographers. He praised the work of Anne Buttimer for example. Although Gould was from an earlier generation (he was born in 1932) that same book was also attacked by a member of an even earlier generation, John Fraser Hart. Hart’s review of the book is unintentionally hilarious in its extremism (he says the problems of the book begin with the first word of the title: “the”). He also calls Gould the “enfant terrible of geography.” This is the kind of thing, where an editor gives the book review to a person with a known hostility to a person, that Gould rails about in the Augean period paper, when editors rejected quantitative papers on principle and they had to start a new journal (less common then than now) to get around the gatekeeping.

The other members of the seminar, as far as I can determine from my archival files were: Debra Strausfogel, Karen Drescher, Stefan Fabian-Marks, Brad Bass, Sven Holdar, Adena Schutzberg, Bruce Snyder, Lisa Ann Hornick, Keith Henderson, Mike Palecki, and Dan Leathers. Notably, several of these went on to be academics, and according to the autobiographies we drew up and shared for the seminar, came with a wide variety of interests, including GIS and physical geography. [Sorry to those who I couldn’t track down. You weren’t on LinkedIn!]

PS Gould went to Colgate College, NY as an undergraduate. Although a Brit, Gould was evacuated to the US during the war, to Hamilton NY, and (I’ll have to check this), went back to New York state for his BA in the early 1950s. When I visited Colgate earlier this year to give a talk, a certain window was pointed out to me (in the clocktower, I think or at least very high up) that was broken by Gould hitting a baseball, and apparently left like that for many years. Alas, when I was there it was repaired.

“The Discourse of Neoliberalism” forthcoming from Simon Springer

Simon Springer has announced his new book The Discourse of Neoliberalism will be published next July. From the publisher’s website:

Why should we be worried about neoliberalization if we are not able to fully appreciate its deleterious effects? How can we fully appreciate its intricacies and power without attending to and seeking to potentially reconcile the various critical theorizations of how it actually operates?

The Discourse of Neoliberalism offers a critical political economy-meets-poststructuralist perspective on the relationship between neoliberalism and power. By advancing a geographical approach to understanding both the discursive formations and material consequences of neoliberalism, the book expose show processes of neoliberalization are shot through with violence. It argues that reading neoliberalism as a discourse better equips us to understand the power of this variegated economic formation as an expansive process of social-spatial transformation that is intimately bound up with the production of poverty, inequality, and violence across the globe. It illuminates the vital and ongoing power of neoliberalism in order to open up a critical space for thinking through how life beyond neoliberalism might be achieved.

Cost is  $39.95 (£24.95) in paperback from Routledge.