Technical solutions to social problems

On digital participatory surveillance and the threat of the homeless


  • Lior Volinz Vrije Universiteit Brussel


Local authorities worldwide are developing and adopting mobile applications that encourage urban residents to report incidents of disorder in public urban space. These municipal apps, or 'Mobile City Applications' (Walravens, 2015), can transform how residents and local authorities approach and handle phenomena of homelessness. This short article argues that adoption of mobile city applications can lead to the wrongful designation of social woes  - such as homelessness - as incidents of urban crime and disorder. This often leads local authorities to engage in technical enforcement measures instead of social and welfare interventions. In examining reports on homelessness from Brussels-region version of FixMyStreet, a mobile city application, I propose such new ‘smart city’ interfaces can prompt residents to misconstrue societal failings, such as homelessness or youth truancy, as decontextualized, easily solvable, geo-taggable isolated incidents. I then briefly analyse the work process of handling FixMyStreet reports among Brussels' municipalities, suggesting that the adoption of mobile city applications can reduces the possibility of devising or enacting a social intervention to support the homeless, and encourage instead technical interventions of removal and dislocation that can quickly ‘solve’ reports.