In 2012, Google rolled out a service called Knowledge Graph which would enable users to have their search query resolved without having to navigate to other websites. So, instead of just presenting users with a diverse list of possible answers to any query, Google selects and frames data about cities, countries and millions of other objects sourced from sites including Wikipedia, the CIA World Factbook and Freebase under its own banner.
For many, this heralded Google’s eventual recognition of the benefits of the Semantic Web: an idea and ideal that the Web could be made more efficient and interconnected when websites share a common framework that would allow data to be shared and reused across application, enterprise, community, and geographic boundaries. This move towards the Semantic Web can be starkly seen in the ways that Wikipedia, as one of the foundations for Google’s Knowledge Graph, has begun to make significant epistemic changes. With a Google funded project called WikiData, Wikipedia has begun to use Semantic Web principles to centralise ‘factual’ data across all language versions of the encyclopaedia. For instance, this would mean that the population of a city need only be altered once in WikiData rather in all places where it occurs in Wikipedia’s 285 language versions.
For Google, these efficiencies provide a faster experience for users who will stay on their website rather than navigating away. For Wikipedia, such efficiencies promise to centralise the updating process so that data are consistent and so that smaller language Wikipedias can obtain automated assistance in translating essential data for articles more rapidly.
This paper seeks to critically interrogate these changes in the digital architectures and infrastructures of our increasingly augmented cities. What shifts in power result from these changes in digital infrastructures? How are semantic standardisations increasingly encoded into our urban environments and experiences? And what space remains for digital counter-narratives, conflict, and contention?
To tackle those questions, we trace data about two cities as they travel through Google’s algorithms and the Semantic Web platforms of Wikidata and Wikipedia. In each case, we seek to understand how particular reflections of the city are made visible or invisible and how particular publics are given voice or silenced. Doing so leads us to ultimately reflect on how these new alignments of code and content shape how cities are presented, experienced, and brought into being.