Airbnb vs. Berlin: Was sagen die Daten?

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After a few short years coming to grips with the sharing economy—not exactly "embracing" it as Airbnb press releases may suggest, but not exactly coming down on it with a hammer—the city government of Berlin imposed an official ban on subletting unregistered vacation apartments to tourists in May 2014. Airbnb hosts were given until that August to register existing listings. An estimated two-thirds of them did not.

Last October, the New York State Attorney General launched his own broadside against the San Francisco-based startup, in the form of a statistical study intending to demonstrate how the business was driving up rents and putting hotel owners out of business (adding insult to injury by weakly parodying Airbnb's graphic design in the report). According to the evidence amassed, he pronounced the majority of listings illegal.

Yet as in Berlin, enforcement is where anti-"sharing" legislation hiccups. City bureaucracies are hardly as agile as tech companies, and the dance between the two is painfully awkward. Municipal governments and startups around the world are frantically conducting surveys like New York's in the hopes of legislatively anticipating the effects of Airbnbs and Ubers: the former are hustling to update existing legal systems in accordance with new technologies and the economic arteries they provide; the latter are hustling to get ahead of those laws before they are put into action.

With or without legislative effect, the surveys are there, and they are full of disturbing information. From reading the most recent detailed report on Airbnb in Berlin, where I live, I learned, among other close-to-home tidbits, that the number of probably-now-illegal Airbnb sublets in my neighborhood, Reuterkiez, tops any other neighborhood per capita in Berlin, and therefore in Germany. Never mind what this says about my cultural capital (probably negative; you never want to be at the center of the swarm), but the effects on the amount of actual capital circulating on my block are enough to to give one pause.

The report where I found this info is by a group of students in the design department at Fachhochschule Potsdam, titled "Airbnb vs. Berlin—Was sagen die Daten?" ("What does the data say?"). For practice in making infographics, they took a small data sample (January 11—February 2, 2015) from Airbnb's front end and splayed it out in charts and maps across an interactive website, with accent colors only a shade away from Airbnb's trademark salmon pink (Airbnb: #FF5A5F; Berlin: #FF656A). 

Yes, this is a student project, and no, it is not comprehensive. But for those with a vested interest (me), the basic pink data points are useful for tentatively trying to grasp the general situation, and perhaps more useful in demonstrating how hard it is to pinpoint any actual causality between Airbnb itself—whose influence until now I have mostly felt rather than sought to quantify—and any particular façet of the (worsening) urban situation.

Map from www.airbnbvsberlin.de showing streets with high density of Airbnb rentals.

Statistics are already in place to demonstrate that rents are sliding uphill, hotel profits are (likely) going down, longtime residents are being edged out of the city center, and the sorry state government is missing out on a potential bounty of property taxes. Here are three bullets on Airbnb, sourced and translated from airbnbvsberlin.de, to correlate with the above facts as you see fit:

  • Any way you slice the data, Berlin is the "undisputed Airbnb stronghold" of Germany. 11,701 Berlin listings were active during the span of the study, compared with runner-up Munich at 4233. The available Berlin apartments amounted to approximately .4% of available domiciles in the city. These included a total of 34,418 sublettable beds.
  • "Legitimate" rents are rising rather in Berlin quickly in comparison with other cities in Germany, and the supply of long-term rental housing is going down for those who want live in the city longer than the "Wochenend-Easy-Jet-Partyvolk" (after whom one Airbnb listing is titled). The average Airbnb listing costs 55 Euros a night; renting a one-bedroom place for a month costs on average 650 Euros a month. Why rent monthly if you could net the same in 11 nights? (See these maps comparing the availability of vacation to long-term rentals for further adorable visualization.)
  • At the crux of the New York study and others has been the issue of whether DIY hoteliers are really amassing real estate across cities and running fully fledged businesses serviced by Airbnb, rather than operating as "hosts" out of their private homes. Thus a particularly contentious statistic is the number of hosts with multiple listings to their names. The numbers in Berlin, according to this source, are comparable to those according to the NY attorney general: 1.3 listings per host compared to 1.2. This is a small percentage of hosts overall, but that small sector is nonetheless netting a large profit.

If you are contemplating these facts and feeling neither perplexed nor enlightened, you are not alone. As Mark Gimeon wrote in Bloomberg of the NY Airbnb study, "If you are looking—as New York State regulators seem to be—for evidence that Airbnb involves much bigger operations than a few students renting out their couches, it's in the[ir] report. On the other hand, if you prefer to see evidence that the hosts on Airbnb are still largely mom-and-pop, or mom-and-mom, or starving twentysomething, operators …you'll find that, too." It's both and neither economics and sharing.

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The Missing Open Standard: How can we unlock the drone's social potential?

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Chris Anderson has famously compared the nascent drone market to the early days of PCs, comparing it with the Homebrew Computer Club, the Bay Area hobbyist meetup where the Apple I was first unveiled. It may seem an odd comparison—the drone is thought of as military technology and (more recently) luxury plaything, while the Homebrew Computer Club is remembered for its utopian beliefs about putting technology into the hands of the people. But while Apple's forays into personal computers were groundbreaking, the "PC" abbreviation historically referred to its greatest threat, the IBM PC standard, a revolutionary form of computer architecture that was easily licensed and copied, and which shaped the personal computer market for over a decade. Drones do not yet have a "PC standard," but if they did, it might be the tipping point that could catapult drones into the mainstream and unlock their social utility.

We have yet to see what this social utility will be. Militarized drone technology has a well-established place among the many tools of the surveillance state. Looking at the history of the computer's shift from an awkward, heavy, military and commercial engineering project to something we carry in our pockets, one wonders how drones might make a similar transition. Some of the first ideas for non-military drones, such as catching poachers, have some way to go in development before they will actually be useful. So far, one of the best uses for drone technology is in the field of cartography. Drones like senseFly's eBee can map a large area very quickly, and rectify imagery to GPS maps. But drones like these cost thousands of dollars and run proprietary software in order to work so seamlessly. What if drone technology were to be transformed in a similar manner to computers, so that standard architecture and operating systems allowed cheaper, more universal hardware and software?

In the late 1970s, desk-sized computers were typically terminals linked to mainframes where the real processing was done. But with the miniaturization of transistor functions into integrated circuits, desktop computers became possible.These early personal computers were sold as kits, and required a hefty investment as well as technical know-how to assemble and operate. When the Apple II was introduced in 1977, it was one of the first "out of the box" personal computers; BYTE magazine called it the first "appliance computer". But the Apple II was still expensive, and with an operating system and architecture limited to this machine only, all compatible software had to be designed specifically for this system. In 1980, less than 10% of 14 million small businesses in the US had personal computers, and of large corporations, less than 3% used personal computers on a regular basis.1 Investing in a limited hobby system was not a priority for most companies.

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Successful Apps Fill Gaps

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Jon Nash and Michael Petruzzo, Slight 1.0 (2014), screenshot of iOS app.

A smartphone app feels special when, upon first being opened, one has no clue what one is supposed to be doing with it. If life is a series of bricks or whatever, then a successful app can be a kind of mortar, filling gaps that you never knew were there (thats where the title of this essay came from). I don't mean *invented* gaps, or *fake* gaps, the type that boring Menlo Park chads cook up after one too many rails, apps with such a specific purpose that they end up sitting in the back of your phone somewhere, sad and utterly useless. I'm talking about apps that come out of the gate with no purpose, or a purpose so open-ended that the original creators could never have dreamed how it would end up being used. This is DUH but twitter: you write text! and look at all this malarkey we have to deal with now! Sad Twitter, Weird Twitter, Talking Tower Bridge Twitter, Commuter Express 437 Updates Twitter, Will Smith's Kid's Twitter, JEFF BAIJ TWITTER!

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Ulrich Fischer: Walking the Edit: Innovative System to "Walk a Movie" / Interview on VernissageTV

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VernissageTV interviews artist Ulrich Fischer on the occasion of the presentation of Walking the Edit as part of Image-Mouvement at the Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève. More on the project below from VernissageTV:

Conceived by Ulrich Fischer, the system allows the user to create an individual video using already existing images that are connected to a certain place via geotagging. Depending on which route one takes and how fast the user walks, an individual movie is created.

Technically, “Walking the Edit” is based on GPS, geotagging, iPhone app and iPhone. By walking through the streets, the iPhone reveals and collects the audiovisual memory of the place. While walking you hear the movie that you are just editing. Once the movie is finished, you can watch it online on the website and share it with other people.

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The Most Boring Places in the World (2009) - Angie Waller

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“The Most Boring Places in the World” is a Google Earth tour that pinpoints the location of bloggers, live journal-ers, and chat room commentators. These authors all claim that the city they live in or vacationed in is more boring than any other place they can imagine, at least during the time of their post. Most locations do not repeat (with the exception of North Carolina, Ohio, Zurich and Singapore). What these destinations share in common is their ability to inspire existential crises, home-from-college woes, and the suffering specific to beautiful scenery, suburban sprawl and shopping malls.

-- FROM THE ARTIST'S STATEMENT

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The Satellite Collection (2010) - Jenny Odell

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The Satellite Collection is a series of six digital prints that I made by collaging cut-out imagery from Google Satellite.

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Approximately 1,326 Grain Silos, Water Towers, and Other Cylindrical-Industrial Buildings

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125 American Swimming Pools

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195 Cargo Ships, Barges, Motorboats, Yachts, Tankers, Cruise Ships, Riverboats, Sailboats and Hospital Ships

Originally via Valentina Tanni

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You, the World and I (2010) - Jon Rafman

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When Orpheus’ beloved Eurydice dies, he cajoles his way into the underworld with his musical charms and his lyre. Wanting her but not her shade, he cannot forbear looking back to physically see her and so loses her forever. In this modern day Orphean tale, an anonymous narrator also desperately searches for a lost love. Rather than the charms of the lyre, contemporary technological tools, Google Street View and Google Earth, beckon as the pathway for our narrator to regain memories and recapture traces of his lost love. In the film, they are as captivating and enthralling as charming as any lyre in retrieving the other: at first they might seem an open retort to critics of new technology who bemoan the lack of the tangible presence of the other in our interactions on the Internet.

Our narrator remembers that once, with her back turned while facing the Adriatic Sea, a Google Street View car drove by and took a picture of his beloved, who detested being photographed, without her realizing it. Our narrator cherishes this photograph and the entire relationship becomes encapsulated in the screen capture replacing all other experiences and memories. Soon it is not enough. Our narrator cannot imagine that, in a world where everything is recorded, that someone could completely disappear. In daily systematic searches for photographs of the nameless other, Google Street View and Google Earth allow him to move seamlessly through vast detailed three-dimensional space. This extraordinary geographical and social exploration is favored by Google satellite images, user-created 3D renderings of Stonehenge and Machu Picchu and Street View panoramas of favorite vacation spots. As an undifferentiated series of cultural, historical and contemporary symbols float together or follow one another in rapid succession, in a world where Dutch anthropologists discover pre-Socratic fragments on Turkish islands ...

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Interview with Zach Blas

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Zach Blas is an artist and writer working at the intersections of networked media, queerness, and politics. His work includes video, sculpture, installation, and design, among other things. He is also a PhD Student in the Program in Literature at Duke University, and writes extensively on the question of art, activism, and sexuality. Zach and I discussed the question of a queer technology and just what queer theory might contribute to the fields of art and technology.

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Fata Morgana (2010) - Damon Zucconi

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FM Radio Map (2006) - Simon Elvins

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Site-specific map plotting the location of FM commercial and pirate radio stations within London. Power lines are drawn in pencil on the back of the map which conduct the electricity from the radio to the front of poster. Placing a metal pushpin onto each station then allows us to listen to the sound broadcast live from that location.

-- FROM THE ARTIST'S STATEMENT

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