A Practice Perspective on Technologies Used in Transportation Studies: Introduction

In this post, Onkar Hoysala, one of the researchers who received the Social Media Research grant for 2016, introduces his proposed work.

The significance of the transport sector in increasing productivity, reducing poverty and help achieve sustainable development goals, especially in rapidly urbanising areas, is well recognised (Asian Development Bank, n.d.; World Bank, 2014). Globally, there has been a push towards using computational methods and tools to help address issues in transportation, with international bodies such as the World Bank and Asian Development Bank pushing towards the use of technology and data management in helping “better map travel patterns and users’ needs, engaging citizens and improving the quality and efficiency of transport solutions” (World Bank, 2014; Asian Development Bank, nd). Such technologies fall under the broad field called the Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS).

In India, projects under the banner of ITS are being undertaken through central and state government funding through various developmental initiatives such as the current Smart Cities initiative. ITS research and development in India has received funding support from ministries such as the Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DeitY) and other ministries at the central, state, and sometimes municipal levels. Research in ITS relies heavily on computational tools and infrastructure – be it models, simulations, or data collection techniques. Models and simulation help explain the world and make predictions based on certain assumptions (Epstein, 2008), and thus help in planning and policy making. For any policy or planning effort, data of various types is a necessity, and ITS looks at various methods of data collection.

In this project I consider one area of ITS research – modelling and simulation. Broadly, transport modelling and simulation could either be at the macro-level, micro-level, or the more recent meso-modelling. Macro simulations are used to study the system-level functioning of transport infrastructure. Micro-level simulations are used to study aspects such as lane discipline in a single or a group of networked roads. Meso-level simulations model travel related activities of people.


Figure 1: A few examples of transport and traffic simulations. Image courtesies (from left): Screenshot from Centre for Traffic Research, KTH, Sweden; Screenshot from Fields of View, Bangalore; Screenshot of Vissim, a traffic simulation software

The simulation software necessary to carry out modelling and simulation research embed the social contexts within which they were developed. For example, software developed in Europe for their local contexts often do not allow modelling heterogeneous vehicular population. Thus, contextualising the software and calibrating them to the local conditions becomes imperative, in order to develop models that are valid. This in turn, has policy implications if the models are being used in policy making.

With this as the backdrop, in this project I will be using a practice-based approach to study how ITS software are being used. The following questions will guide my research:

1. How are transportation modelling and simulation (M&S) software, which are often developed for contexts outside of India, shaping the practice of model and simulation designers in India?

– How do the structures embedded in the technologies by design, shaping the outcome of the M&S work being carried out?

– How are the social structures around the use of these technologies (the context) shaping the practice?

– What structuring resources (such as vocabularies, for example) are emerging around the use of these technologies, and how? Do these resources get reified in daily practice?

2. What is the nature of the reflexive relationship between practice of the M&S designers, and the M&S technologies?

– How is the practice of the M&S designers shaping the technologies?

– How is the contextualised practice of the M&S designers in Indian contexts shaping the domain of ITS itself?

– How is the practice shaping the social structures?

While in the upcoming blog posts I will detail the need of a practice based approach, it is useful to touch upon it briefly here. Practice based theories as they are known today, have their origins in the sociological works of Bourdieu (1972) and Giddens (1984), and seek to bridge the gap between subjectivist and objectivist thought in social theory. Subjectivist theories of society essentially try to explain social phenomena by placing emphasis on human action and agency. On the other hand, objectivist thought places emphasis on social structures such as family, class, institutions, etc., to explain social phenomena. Practice theories present a way to address both the subjectivist and objectivist thoughts, by focussing on not just the structure or the agency, but both. Doing so will allow us to focus on what people do and why, which is at the core of practice theories.

How, then, is practice a useful lens to study technologies? Literature in technology studies show that technologies are not deployed in a vacuum, but within a socio-cultural context. Further, technologies are not neutral, and the outcomes of the use of technologies depend heavily on how it is used and by whom. Thus, disembedding simulation software from the contexts that they have been developed in (say a country in Europe, for example) and embedding them within contexts such as India, have implications on the outcome of the use of simulation software. In order to study how

– the context within which the technology is deployed and

– who uses them and how

affect the outcome of the ITS research in modelling and simulation, I use a practice based approach.

In this project, I use the concepts of Communities of Practice, and Technology-in-Practice. Following Lave and Wenger (1991) and Wenger (1999), I leverage the concept of communities of practice, to study who the people are who use these technologies, the communities they belong to. In terms of technology-in-practice, a practice lens allows us to consider how not just structures (social structures, technological structures, organisational structures) but also individual’s agency (background and training, for example) enact technology-in-practice (Orlikowski, 2000).

My tentative sites of study will be transportation research groups within academic institutions who work on modelling, simulation and big data analytics. I will use a qualitative case study approach, focussing on semi-structured interviews and participant observations. Through semi-structured interviews, I aim to understand the histories and trajectories of the people working in the area. Through observing their day-to-day activity in using the simulation software, I aim to understand how they enact the software in practice.

While the need for ITS projects are well understood, how they are being implemented is an important aspect for study. Through this study, I hope to broadly understand the nature of embeddedness of such tools in transportation studies, and the implications of the same for both the field of ITS, and for the policies being implemented.


Asian Development Bank. (n.d.). Urban Transport. http://www.adb.org/sectors/transport/keypriorities/urban-transport. Last accessed on 11 February 2016.

Bourdieu, P. (1972). Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge university press.

Epstein, J. M. (2008). Why model? Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 11(4), 12.

Giddens, A. (1984). The constitution of society: outline of the theory of structuration. University of California Press.

Lave, J. (1988). Cognition in practice: mind, mathematics and culture in everyday life. Cambridge University Press.

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge university press.

Orlikowski, W. J. (2000). Using technology and constituting structures: a practice lens for studying technology in organizations. Organization science, 11(4), 404–428.

Wenger, E. (1999). Communities of practice: learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge university press.

World Bank. (2014, October). Transport overview. http://www.worldbank.org/en/topic /transport/overview#1. Last accessed on 11 February 2016.

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Published on: April 7, 2016

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