First Monday

At Home in Brussels: Professional mobility as a service by Shenja van der Graaf and Wim Vanobberghen

An emerging generation of mobile applications is viewing mobility as a way to create interactive experiences that rely on or exploit movement and space in the urban context. By drawing on a user–oriented design approach, this paper investigates the initial design stages of a mobile relocation service application (linked to a Web–based service) developed for professionals relocating to the city of Brussels. This approach provides insight into several socio–spatial factors underpinning the relocation process. The findings demonstrate that the user–mobile application dynamic associated with a personalized experience augments and facilitates how people come to plan and understand cities, how they manage certain services and utilities, and hence how they seek to shape life in a new city.


Urban computing, mobility and ‘in–between–ness’
Professional mobility as a service: Social urban computing design in practice
Perspectives on the relocation service application




The number of professionals assigned internationally by their organizations continues to rise. More than half tend to bring their families along, pointing to the importance of the work–family interface in professional mobility (Haslberger and Brewster, 2008). This highlights the issue of quality of life abroad, and particularly of housing, against a backdrop of cities experiencing the largest wave of growth (and associated complexities) in history. This coincides with two seemingly intertwined trends whereby advanced information and communication technologies (ICTs) are considered to be a means to provide faster and more efficient service delivery, and to better allocate scarce resources in the city. Increasingly, such technologies can be seen to become part of people’s everyday city life. The ‘miniaturization’ of devices, in particular, has facilitated everyday life ‘on the move’. In recent years we have witnessed the emergence of a generation of mobile applications ranging from personal digital assistants (PDAs) to smartphones that view mobility as a way to create interactive experiences relying on or exploiting movement and space in an urban context. From this perspective, we seek to examine a particular kind of urban experience that is often ignored in present urban computing design: the transition from one place to another, from one country to another, and the consequent opportunity to assist in the professional mobility of expatriates.

Given this scope, our aim is threefold. On a theoretical level, we address the problematic of how mobile applications should be designed and implemented to integrate with a wide range of urban contexts and to assist people in their daily lives. We will first argue — inspired by the social shaping of technology and by domestication theories — that a social view of urban computing is necessary, implying that designers should involve users from the initial stages of their design activity as co–creators or co–constructors. Second, we will argue that the relatively new domain of urban computing design has tended to pay little attention to an important aspect of the urban experience, that of relocating from one city to another, or to the role of location–based technology and its implications for the spatiality of places and behaviour. While a focus on the development and critique of possible implications can be detected in the literature, this paper offers the systematic and empirical approach of a single case study in a particular locale. Urban mobility is thus approached as an everyday fact for socio–spatial design purposes, an approach which is assisted by the concept of ‘in–between–ness’ (Bassoli, 2010).

On an applied and empirical level, we aim to focus on the study of, and design for, the experience of inhabiting and traversing urban environments, especially from the angle of professional mobility. We investigate the development of a mobile relocation service application (linked to a Web–based service) intended to assist professionals in their search for a place to live and for points of interest when moving (temporarily) to the city of Brussels. The goal of this application is to streamline the experience of users when actually on the move in Brussels so as to allow, among other things, easy filtering of properties and points of interest near to the user’s location as registered by the smartphone’s GPS capabilities.

This paper, then, can contribute to the emerging field of urban computing by offering a more rounded understanding of urban life. We seek to extend knowledge about the study of, and design for, the experience of inhabiting and traversing urban environments. First, we draw out the theoretical background to this work, focusing on urban computing and everyday life in the context of urban space and mobility. This is followed by an overview of the methodology underpinning a design–oriented approach. The third section presents the findings, demonstrating the socio–spatial dynamics underlying the experience of inhabiting and traversing the city of Brussels, and we end this paper with some concluding remarks.



Urban computing, mobility and ‘in–between–ness’

A social–construction view of technological development

In line with the stream of thought that focuses on the social shaping of technology, we believe in developing a social view of technological development, rather than following purely techno–centric visions that see technology as the driving force behind social change. This implies that the deployment of a particular technology does not follow directly from the technical properties, or potentialities, of a new artefact. Rather, the function, the form, the content, and the uses of every technology are the result of a continuous negotiation, within a particular social context, between, among others, various actors on the production side, policy–makers, advertizers, and end users. Technologies are thus the product of social construction (MacKenzie and Wacjman, 1985; Bijker, et al., 1987; Williams and Edge, 1996). Domestication studies grounded in theories of everyday life and cultural studies also clearly extend the view of the social construction process to encompass end users (cf., Silverstone and Haddon, 1996; Haddon, 2004). They stress how adoption and use depend upon the activity of all the above. Engineers and designers project certain visions of reality onto the technology and its design and, in this way, inscribe it with certain preferred uses. Policy–makers, in their legislative work, do the same, as do advertizers in their portrayal of the technology in everyday life. In this way, users are confronted not with a ‘naked’ technology, but with one that is already inscribed with certain meanings and uses (Silverstone, 1994). However, the adoption and use, or the rejection, of any technology by end users is the result of their creative re–interpretation of the uses and meanings inscribed in the technology on offer within their own experience of everyday life. This user appropriation finally flows back to the production side and so the innovation cycle continues (Silverstone and Haddon, 1996). So end users finally have a more important role in the innovation process than that of merely accepting or rejecting, as diffusion studies (cf., Rogers, 2003) in the field of user research have traditionally claimed. For this reason, social construction theories argue today that social scientists should address end users as ‘co–creators’ or ‘co–constructors’ (von Hippel, 2005; Oudshoorn and Pinch, 2003).

Our perspective developed here implies a need to articulate the technical and the social, and their interactions, in every analysis of technological development and of the role of technology in society. This has an important impact on the field of computing design in general and urban computing in particular. It presents a challenge to designers to take account from the start of everyday life and end users’ understanding of it in order to design computing technologies appropriate to various urban contexts. We will now discuss these implications for, and their translation in, the field of ubiquitous urban computing.

The ubiquitous computing research agenda and everyday life

The term ‘ubiquitous computing’ (or ubicomp), coined by Mark Weiser (1991), describes the third wave in computing (after mainframes and personal computing via desktops) and “takes into account the natural human environment and allows the computers themselves to vanish into the background” [1]. The smartphone is a concrete example of ubiquitous computing that has entered our everyday life context (see an overview in Schmidt, 2002). The agenda for research on ubiquitous computing has largely been dominated by a purely technical focus. In order to realise the necessary technical progress to carry forward the ubiquitous computing vision, much attention has been given to the challenges of design, coordination and architecture and to the implementation of infrastructures and of miniaturized devices using these infrastructures (Kakihara, 2003). However, a change of perspective can be detected in the ubicomp research agenda of recent years. Inspired, on the one hand, by social construction of technology approaches (outside the ubicomp field) and, on the other hand, by the concrete design practices of some ubiquitous computer designers, a growing body of research can be seen to emphasize the need to take account of social aspects.

As Bell and Dourish (2007) pointed out, the persistent vision is one of a ‘proximate future’ delivered by engineers, where our encounters with one another and with the world are smoothed by the application of technology. But such a vision renders the achievements of engineers continuously out of reach or out of touch and tends to prevent them from investigating and understanding current practices. Moreover, it holds to a technological deterministic reasoning whereby, once a technology is ready, the implementation problems will simply disappear of their own accord and the everyday world of ubicomp will turn out to be homogeneous, orderly and clean (Bell and Dourish, 2007). Furthermore, rather than framing ubicomp as something ‘about to happen and out of reach’, they argued that ubicomp was already present “in the form of densely available computational and communication resources” which were “highly present, visible and branded” [2]. Drawing on case studies from cities in Korea and Singapore, Bell and Dourish also argued that “ubiquitous computing has turned out to be characterized by improvisation and appropriation of technology for purposes never imagined by their inventors and often radically opposed to them; by widely different social, cultural and legislative interpretations of the goals of technology, by flex, slop and play” [3]. They pleaded, therefore, for the development of a contemporary ubiquitous computing that acknowledged, as a central theme, the messiness of everyday life and the need of its understanding. Galloway (2004) held a similar position, arguing that ubicomp should connect to cultural studies and theories of everyday life so as to inform the design process of ubicomp technologies and move beyond issues of mere speed, performance or capacity. In other words, ubicomp should take social and cultural issues into consideration in the design process and, in so doing, can contribute to these everyday life theories.

Such a ‘present–day ubicomp’ approach has led several designers to turn to a wide range of qualitative methods. Workshops, focus groups or participant observation allow us to take account of the meaning and significance of these computing technologies for people in their everyday life context. Techniques like paper prototyping or probing make it possible to mobilize end users in concrete design practice as ‘co–creators’ and thus to gain new knowledge about their interaction with technology in everyday settings.

Urban computing and the problematic of space and mobility in everyday urban life

The urban computing approach, a stream within ubicomp, has particularly focused on computing devices and digital networks in urban settings. From the perspective presented above, urban computing research, rather than being underpinned by potential ‘future city scenarios’ applicable to any city, should be rooted in the daily practices that shape the cities of today and should acknowledge the cultural and historic specificity of every city and the diversity within its confines (Williams and Dourish, 2006).

An acknowledgement of cities as socially diverse and historically and culturally specific settings is relevant to the urban computing context underpinning the design of ‘locative’ mobile technologies and applications that exploit movement and space. In this sense, they are a category of mobile computational devices that are not intended to resolve problems of ‘disconnection’ (access to remote data resources), ‘dislocation’ (way finding) or ‘disruption’ (technological behaviour inappropriate to the settings into which the device is moved). Rather, locative media approach mobility as an everyday fact and a new opportunity to create interactive experiences within the urban environment (Dourish, et al., 2007; de Souza e Silva and Frith, 2012).

From a social urban computing perspective, designing such locative media requires a clear understanding of movement and space in the urban context (cf., Elliott and Urry, 2010; Kitchin and Dodge, 2011). By drawing on cultural geography and theories of everyday life (à la de Certeau), Dourish, et al. (2007) claim that the spatial experience of a city, and within a city, should be seen as diverse and as the result of a creative spatializing process which involves strategy and tactics and recognizes individual and collective agency. While authorities, designers, planners and architects, among others, attempt in their strategic mode to impose a certain meaning on urban spaces, people in their tactical mode as users of space can resist or renegotiate these meanings in their daily behaviour.

Therefore, mobility should not be framed as an instrumental, individual or socially uniform practice for finding the way from point A to point B (only practised by individuals and always having the same form). Rather, any movement of a particular kind (e.g., a long journey, a trip to a shop, commuting) or undertaken by particular groups or individuals (e.g., young people, old people, workers, tourists) carries a certain social and cultural significance or aesthetic for individuals and is part of a more collective and meaningful pattern of movement. In recognizing the cultural and social dynamics of space and mobility, mobile urban computing must recognize that it is embedded in the city and must become a field that provides new sites, tools and resources for individual and collective meaning–making in this context (Dourish, et al., 2007; Bassoli, et al., 2007; Tamminen, et al., 2004).

Categorizing urban space and mobility: In–between–ness

When we consider how everyday life has been approached in the social ubiquitous computing research, we can detect a preoccupation with the domains of work and home. A similar focus can be seen in social construction research, as outlined above, and in domestication research in particular. The latter has tended to concentrate on media technologies used at home (Haddon, 2006), while exploration of work–place usage has been limited and more recent (Lie and ørensen, 1996; Pierson, 2006).

The everyday life experience ‘between’ going to work and being at home, coinciding with the advance of mobile technologies, has been of particularly interest to urban computing. However, to date research on these experiences seems also to have been rather limited. Existing literature describes the urban computing approach as reinterpreting the categories of “third places” — borrowed from the urban sociologist Ruth Oldenburg — and “non–places” — borrowed from the anthropologist Marc Augé — to designate such urban experiences. The conceptualizations of “third places” or “non–places” refer in current urban computing studies to public places that connect home and work (think of the underground, an airport), where friends and strangers co–habit (such as restaurants and bars) or to public spaces more generally.

However, most of these studies tend not to take full account of the sociological underpinnings, viewing such places predominantly as design spaces that can be ‘spaced up’ with technology so as to guarantee access anywhere and at any time. Based on her study of various environments linked to people’s experiences, Bassoli (2010) found that these categorizations in contemporary urban computing failed to include an important aspect of people’s daily urban experience in such places, namely the transition from one meaningful place to another, or the resulting tension between transitional and permanent aspects of everyday city life. It is this aspect of inhabiting and transgressing urban spaces that needs to be investigated as meaningful in its own right, and in the context of different individuals (cf., de Souza e Silva and Frith, 2012).

The term ‘in–between–ness’ captures exactly these experiences of transition and movement through urban space. It reflects how such moments of transgressing urban space “are often not ends in themselves, but rather moments which lie in between planned everyday activities and destinations” [4]. Thus, experiences of in–between–ness are “rather like a flow of varied circumstances than a set of defined and separated situations like ‘going to work’, ‘being in the freeway’ or ‘waiting for the bus’” [5]. This concept seems to be helpful for reflecting on the design of locative mobile technologies that aim to exploit movement and space in an urban context (Mackenzie, 2002; Graham and Marvin, 2001). We explore these below in the context of the design of a mobile relocation service application aimed at expats discovering of a new city and looking for place to live.



Professional mobility as a service: Social urban computing design in practice

Building on the theoretical foundations drawn out above, this section introduces the empirical study. By taking into account the impact of the context of use and experience in the city our empirical framework starts where studies purely of technology acceptance and usability tend to stop. This approach is considered as the outcome of a process of socialization where meaning and impact are constructed through people’s everyday use of technology (cf., Living Lab research in Pierson and Lievens, 2005).

The methodology consists of a direct engagement between designers and users in the early stages of ideation and concept design, underpinned by the urban experience involved in relocation, i.e., finding a place to live in the regional entity known as the Brussels Capital Region (hereafter Brussels), consisting of the city of Brussels and its 18 surrounding municipalities.

Brussels as an international city

Brussels today, particularly since the establishment there in the 1960s of the headquarters of international decision–making institutions like the EU and NATO, is a truly international city. As a result the city has witnessed, in addition to the blue–collar migration from former colonies and from Southern Europe in the 1950s and 1960s, a rise in white–collar migration by people mainly coming from the other EU member states to work for these institutions or for the various legal, financial or socio–cultural enterprises associated with them (de Groof and Elaut, 2010). While the exact number of people working in these sectors is unknown, some insights are available. Of a total population in Brussels (2009) of about 1,100,000, some 46 percent were of non–Belgian nationality. Within this group, some 60 percent (or 170,000 people) were of an EU26–nationality — this is about 10 percent of the total population of the Brussels Capital Region. The major European institutions, such as the Commission, the Parliament and the European Council, together provided in 2009 employment for between 37,000 and 39,000 people (Persoons, 2011). The current international status of Brussels and its political–economic position within Belgium (a large proportion of the Belgian population work in Brussels; cf., Corijn and Vloeberghs, 2009) means that relocating to the region for professional purposes is a concrete experience for a significant proportion of the city’s inter/national population and a suitable case study to explore.

Mobile relocation service application

The mobile relocation service application [6] reported in this paper aims to assist professionals from the EU member states (and their families) in their relocation to Brussels. In its envisioned form, the application focuses on helping its expatriate users to:

These objectives are met by offering a Web–based component and a mobile application. The Web application provides a feature–rich interface that can be used by incoming citizens when preparing their move to Brussels. These functionalities are supplemented by an Internet–enabled mobile application that supports incoming citizens when actually ‘on the move’ in Brussels. For example, preferences recorded and searches made on the Web–based component are reflected on the mobile application as it guides users to preferred properties and the points of interest around them. The application also allows its users to add their ‘favourites’ and to save feedback on the properties and places visited during their visit. This information is stored online, so it can be used on both Web and mobile components [7].

In this paper we focus on the mobile component as a standalone application [8]. The reason for this is that the user experience of this application is streamlined with a view to supporting users when actually on the move in Brussels by allowing easy filtering of properties and points of interest near to the user’s location as registered by the smartphone’s GPS capabilities and by allowing in particular for motion and spatial experiences of on–going house–hunting activities. The application was developed after a design–oriented examination of the relocation experience in the city of Brussels, involving one designer and 38 users interested in the design of everyday urban computing. It was designed on the basis of a paper prototyping session involving eight users and tested and adapted in three iterative cycles (two in the closed phase and one in the open phase).

Data collection and analysis

The character of the relocation service poses a challenge to data collection. Given our target population, we had to recruit as far as possible individuals residing outside Brussels (and outside the country). While it is easy to recruit Belgians, recruiting professionals intending to move to Brussels to test the mobile application in the city is in practice difficult. We therefore focused on expats already living in Brussels, but who relocated there very recently (no more than two years ago). For the paper prototyping sessions, in order to obtain knowledge about the experience of finding property in a desirable neighbourhood [9] and to test ideas and concepts concerning the service design which were guided by the design of paper prototypes and wire frames, we organized a workshop, underpinned by interviews with seven non–Belgian professionals and one participant who had expert knowledge of Web and mobile application usability (30 January 30 — 6 February 2012). Four sessions were held, each with two participants. The results of these sessions, such as data on particular needs and functionalities, were then developed iteratively. The first mobile application was tested in July 2012 with 20 people, a mixture of expats and Belgian citizens, using a survey and logs [10]. The iterated version is currently being tested by 11 expats and Belgian citizens using a survey, logs and a participatory observation [11].

The design–oriented approach focuses on analysing elements of the mobile application in terms of, in particular, the expat scenario, ease of use, usefulness, content quality and lasting impressions [12]. The mobile service also tracks user activities, such as access and error information and click patterns while using the service, yielding insights into the back–end experience. The software Testflightapp is used for this purpose. The data serve here only to validate the survey results (and hence are not reported as such), for example to check whether answers concerning duration of property search correspond to the actual time recorded in the back end. Recently, the first set of participant observations of ‘mobile test walks’ were conducted in Brussels in order to provide a context for a more rounded understanding of the data collected through the workshops, surveys and logs underpinning the actual lived urban relocating experience. This paper aims to extend our knowledge about the interface of the mobile relocation service application design and an improved understanding of urban life in a context of professional mobility.



Perspectives on the relocation service application

Paper prototyping sessions

The paper prototyping sessions emphasized the heterogeneous experience of relocating as impacted by three factors: (1) the help and information expats have/do not have at their disposal (e.g., assistance from a relocation agent in the city paid for personally or by the employer, an HR office); (2) the timeframe within which they actually have to relocate; and, (3) whether they relocate on their own or with partner and/or children. We were able to distinguish three kinds of ‘expat persona’.

First, young, mostly single, early–career professionals tend to have limited preparation time and not many resources at their disposal. In order to compensate for a lack of structural help from their future employer, they often look for information on the Web (expat Web sites) or from their acquaintances in order to obtain basic information about neighbourhoods. This group tends to develop a two–step residential strategy: finding on arrival a basic place to live in a neighbourhood that matches specific needs (close connection to work, basic facilities like public transport and supermarkets); and after a while, when they are more integrated in the city, looking for a better place to live in a neighbourhood that meets their various demands as well as possible (from supermarkets to cultural and leisure facilities). Upon arrival in Brussels, the mobile device should therefore guide them as quickly as possible to properties and points of interest that are meaningful to them.

The second group of expats (mostly in higher positions), with more information resources and practical assistance as well as more time, emphasized that they would like immediately to find the most suitable property and neighbourhood in which to settle. Their search, however, started like that of the first group, with a broad scan of basic search options (here including also public transport and shopping facilities), moving on to a further detailed, step–by–step exploration.

The third group of expats are relocating with partner and/or children. They seem to follow a similar pattern, but emphasized the need for educational facilities. The last two groups imagined using the mobile device more than once in the same neighbourhood: once to perform a broad scan of basic requirements, and a second time to explore houses and points of interest in more detail. This latter kind of use was envisioned by the first group of expats as part of a second step in their residential strategy.

All the expats emphasized that the actual act of looking for a decent property and a desirable neighbourhood to live in was constantly interrupted by other practical necessities, be these administrative, personal or job–related. Using the application to walk around in the city was therefore often interrupted and, in the case of the group of young, single professionals, also very much limited by time constraints.

These insights taught us to work iteratively to a design that would ideally lead to two search options. One was a classic option of a property search function (municipality, price, number of rooms, buy/choose house or flat) integrating a basic set of points of interest (POIs), including public transport facilities, everyday utilities like supermarkets and shops, security and healthcare facilities like police departments, hospitals and pharmacies, and finally educational institutions. The property results returned would then be displayed in a list. Clicking on one property led to the display of its description, a possibility of viewing its position and sight of the selected point on a map. Secondly, via a ‘what’s around’ function using GPS and augmented reality, the expat user could use the same search to find either a property or specific points of interest in a certain range around him, which were then displayed on a map or via augmented reality, together with the distance from his actual position and the possibility of viewing this immediately via Google Street View. Furthermore, by selecting the property or the point of interest, the user could further explore these data. In both uses of the mobile application, the ‘hide/show points of interest’ function allowed the user to expand the list of points of interest to include cultural, religious and administrative buildings as well as sports and recreation facilities. In this way, the tension between a broad scan and a detailed scan of the city environment could be resolved.

Secondly, in order to counter the negative consequences of being interrupted during the walk around Brussels, it was desirable that functions for saving interesting houses and points of interest, integrating photos and rating property and points of interests be integrated into our design. A rating function, moreover, would make it possible to give an aggregated ‘rating results’ view of properties and points of interest, thus helping members of the first ‘expat–persona’ category to make use of this information, provided by fellow expats, in the first stage of their residential strategy.

As mentioned, these functionalities were added and evaluated iteratively in three cycles. The first cycle has finished and allowed users to (1) search for properties; (2) browse properties and view them in detail; and, (3) browse points of interest around the properties. In the currently ongoing second cycle users can also (4) browse points of interest around the current location (also making use of GPS and augmented reality, e.g., information on properties for rent or sale pop up while the user is on the move); The final cycle will have a new look and feel and will also allow users to browse (5) favourite properties and points of interest; and, to use (6) an expat ‘survival guide’ offering information and tips ranging from procedures to register oneself at the municipality, to good restaurants [13].

Now let us take a quick look at the initial survey results for the closed phase, involving points (1) to (3).

Participant profile

First, we provide some descriptive information about the profiles of the 20 (Cycle 1, or c1) and 11 (Cycle 2, or c2) people respectively who participated in the closed testing phase of designing the mobile relocation service application [14]. The following table (Table 1) shows that, across both cycles, the largest group of participants were non–Belgians and that there was a near–balance of men and women, with a mean age of about 30. Also, the Internet tended to be frequently accessed using a smartphone (c1) and more than half described their smartphone usage skills as ‘good’ (c2). Furthermore, some 36 percent of c2 participants were relocating on their own, followed by some 27 percent who would be bringing their family, and more than half would be taking care of the relocation by themselves.


Table 1.
Source: Mobile Relocation Service Application Survey (EPIC, 2012).
Note: *Basic — ‘I know how to text sms, consult and write e–mails, download and check mobile applications’; Good — ‘In addition to the basic skills, I also use my mobile phone for private banking, checking and posting messages on social media like Facebook and Twitter, use geo–localization when possible for retrieving information I need’; Excellent — ‘I can perform all of the above and also know how to technically develop mobile applications’.
User profileCycle 1
 Cycle 2
Nationality Belgian 5%
Germany 15%
Greece 15%
France 10%
India 5%
Netherlands 10%
Poland 20%
United Kingdom 10%
United States 10%
  Belgian 20%
Germany 25%
Greece 10%
Netherlands 10%
Poland 25%
United Kingdom 10%
Gender Male 30%
Female 65%
No answer 5%
  Male 64%
Female 18%
No answer 18%
Age 31.05   30.03
Smartphone use
(to access Internet)
Every day 50%
1, 2 a week 25%
1, 2 a month 10%
Never 10%
No answer 5%
Smartphone use
Basic 18%
Good 55%
Excellent 9%
No answer 18%
Smartphone use
(to check public transport)
Very often 30%
Often 25%
Sometimes 20%
Never 20%
No answer 5%
If I were to move to Brussels today, I would ... On my own (single) 36%
With partner 19%
(and have children abroad)
With partner 27%
and children
No answer 18%
Smartphone use
(to consult mobile apps from the local/national government)
Very often 10%
Often 5%
Sometimes 5%
Never 75%
No answer 5%
If I were to move to Brussels today, I would ... All by myself 64%
(without support from my employer or a relocation agent)
I get information/support from my employer
(but I need to take care of it myself) 18%
No answer 18%


Design and experience

The goal of the design–oriented approach was to develop the mobile application, in particular so that users could find and save information on properties and points of interest, and further explore these, while traversing the city, from property to property, to points of interest, and so on. Based on a literature review, the survey developed five constructs: scenario, ease of use, usefulness, content quality, and attitude or lasting impressions, containing 41 (c1) and 37 (c2) items or statements (EPIC, 2012). Participants provided their opinions in open and closed formats, including five– and nine–point Likert scales. Alternatives available within scenario statements included ‘Overall, I’m satisfied with the ease of completing the tasks in this scenario’, ‘Select property from list’, ‘Explore POI around property’. Those within ease of use questions included ‘Learning how the Relocation Service works is easy for me’. In the usefulness questions, they included ‘Showing the search results in a list and display is useful’, ‘Using the Relocation Service would enable me to find a property more quickly’; in content quality questions, they included ‘Find a place’, ‘Distance of property from certain POIs’; Lasting impression questions focused on the positive and negative aspects of the design offered, as well as on recommended features and experiences. The findings indicate that most participants were able to accomplish the scenario, that is to find a place to live and points of interest, via the ‘find a place to live’ function, and to find and discover points of interests via the ‘what’s around me’ function. (See Appendix 1 for overview).

In terms of ease of use, some 63 percent in Cycle 1 found it easy to learn how the app worked (M=2.63, SD=1.165, N=19), while some 37 percent reported that the app was orientated towards all levels of users (M=3.21, SD=1.273, N=19). Of the participants in Cycle 2, some 64 percent reported that they found the app to be orientated towards all levels of users (M=1.90, SD=.568, N=10). When asked about the usefulness of some of the elements of the app, such as the search criteria for finding a property or points of interests, the geo–localization of points of interest and showing points of interest with street view, about 64 percent found the points of interest and the geo–localization functions most useful.

In addition to testing certain design qualities such as quality of property information, overall look and feel, and technical requirements such as speed, security and reliability, we also sought to focus in greater detail on the points of interest. Some 80 percent and 73 percent of Cycle 1 and Cycle 2 participants respectively (N=19, N=10) expressed a wish to be able to search for properties on the basis of points of interest. In particular, the kinds of point deemed to be of interest were related both to the vicinity of the property and to traversing the city. Hence, we asked participants to rank nine items concerning the points of interest in order of importance. (See Appendix 2 for results). The participants of Cycle 1 considered transport facilities and everyday utilities as the most important, while for Cycle 2 participants cultural facilities came second. A Kendall’s W Test was performed in to examine the strength of agreement between participants (Cycle 1: X2 (8)=64.640, W=.539, p<.001; Cycle 2: X2 (8)=13.067, W=.204, p<.110). Lastly, participants also identified the most negative and positive elements of the application and offered recommendations for improving the design. The answers are grouped in the following table (Table 2).


Table 2.
Cycle 1
Points of interest are not defined Pictures and display fairly attractive Would be nice to be able to leave comments/likes, share saved items with family
  POI map was slow, with error messages, and cluttered Simple and intuitive Contact information for properties
  No way to identify different types of POI on the map (e.g., by colours or icons) Handy app Energy consumption info
  Could not save items of interest Map Different colours for POIs
  Don’t know how/from whom to get additional information if really interested in the property   Choose multiple municipalities in one search
  No selection by commune   Radar + augmented reality
  The map could not be loaded   Distance range
  No widget    
  Struggling with look and feel    
Cycle 2
Could not look for apartments (only houses) Useful tool for looking for living location In the POIs, restaurants or bars could potentially be included; also city bike locations
  Certain info outdated (e.g., swimming pool in Ganshoren has been closed since 2006) Comprehensive choice of POI Include offers from different real estate Web sites (if not yet the case)
  No “Brussels–1000” municipality Quick info Include general information on the different municipalities (e.g., short history, what makes the place interesting, what kind of people live here, etc.)
  Names of POI are not interactive (no links) Points of interest list nice and a wide range of possibilities Provide a co–location service, with which people can find co–renters
    Easy to select search criteria Add more choices like “pets allowed”


Participant observation

In order to better understand the scenario co–developed in the real–life setting of the city of Brussels, a first set of participant observation sessions was organized (March 2013) with five EU nationals who had just started a job in Brussels and were still looking for a place to live. Three of these would be working as researchers at the University (one Austrian woman, 25; one German woman, 24; one Italian man, 24) and, although two had a boyfriend or girlfriend in their home country, all were planning to live (initially) on their own. As we had identified in the paper prototyping sessions, upon arrival in Brussels all stayed initially with a friend or relative or in a hotel [15]. All had envisioned a (temporary) career outside their home country in order to start out as young professionals. The other two people were a Portuguese — Czech couple (35 years and 34 years) who would be working for an EU institution.

We observed the participants walking around in Brussels using the iPhone app, occasionally also asking them to comment on their actions during their walks. Each session lasted approximately 1.5 hours. Notes and photos were taken and clicking patterns were technically logged. The participants were in the process of finding a place to live when we gave them our mobile application for observation purposes. The actual process of relocation had to be realized within a limited time frame and without much structured help from their (future) employers.

1. Mobility framed within a given socio–spatial structure

The first issue that immediately arose in finding a place to live was the selection of areas of the city to start their property search. Our mobile prototype did not offer any specific information regarding the municipalities the users could select. Although theoretically a full search over all or part of the 19 municipalities in the Brussels Region was possible, we could see that the concrete selection of municipalities on an individual level was inspired by their common wish to live close to the workplace, by advice about ‘good neighbourhoods’ from non–Belgian friends or relatives living in Brussels, by reading information about Brussels on Web sites, or by information provided by the future employer. As a result, they selected municipalities in the south–east of Brussels, in particular Etterbeek and Ixelles. Moreover, apart from price and other personal criteria for the returned properties, only those located within neighbourhoods that were described as being ‘good to live in’ were retained. However, this choice of municipality and neighbourhoods was not neutral, and may be best understood within the socio–spatial dynamic underpinning the structure of the city of Brussels.

Corijn and Vloeberghs (2009) provided insight into the social, spatial and economic development of Brussels. The city’s name means ‘settlement in the marches’ and dates from the first settlements in around 1,000 CE, which were concentrated on islands in the valley of the River Zenne. This valley has a rather asymmetric profile with a west hill that rises very gradually and an east hill with a rather steep slope. Together with the second medieval city wall (fifteenth century) that gave the old city the shape of a pentagon, this geographical characteristic marked the spatial structuring of the city of Brussels. Until the nineteenth century, the lower city in the west had a more popular and industrial character, while the east hill attracted the rulers and the bourgeoisie. The Industrial Revolution and population growth in the nineteenth century led to an expansion of the city beyond its medieval walls, and what is often referred to as the First Crown [16]. Urban projects led to a concentration of industry and working population in poor dwellings within the old Pentagon around the Zenne and in areas near the newly built Brussels–Charleroi Canal, situated to the west and north of the the old city walls (Anderlecht, Molenbeek). From that moment onwards, this area of the Canal and the River Zenne was not only a physical, but also a clearly socio–economic border.

The more affluent bourgeoisie moved to expanding areas situated east and south–east of the old Pentagon (Schaarbeek, Saint–Josse, Ixelles, Saint–Giles). Within the old Pentagon, urbanization projects in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries — e.g., construction of large boulevards in the city centre, administrative buildings, the railway connection between the South and North railway stations — took over the major part of the remaining traditional popular artisan areas, turning the centre into a major administrative and commercial area. Meanwhile, the city expanded further after World War I and World War II to more remote municipalities south, south–east and north–west of the Pentagon. This whole area of urbanization is known as the Second Crown of Brussels [17]. Because of the rise in their standard of living, Belgian workers and middle–class families were seen increasingly to move from their old living areas in the First Crown or Pentagon to the more middle–class and residential, areas located in the Second Crown, or predominantly to municipalities that are now located outside the borders of the Brussels Region (Corijn and Vloeberghs, 2009).

The internationalization of Brussels, due both to blue–collar industries and to the arrival of international organizations, was caught in this dynamic of a ‘dual city’ where spatial and social structure could be seen to coincide. Blue–collar immigrants who had arrived in the 1950s and 1960s (from Mediterranean countries such as Morocco, Turkey and Portugal, and holding a lower socio–economic position) were forced to move to areas offering cheaper housing. Migrants from Morocco and Turkey, in particular, occupied the former houses of middle–class families in the inner city and around the canal in the First Crown. Similar patters can be detected with more recent migrations from Eastern Europe, which are not directly related to the international institutions (Corijn and Vloeberghs, 2009; Vandermotten, et al., 2008).

Migration related to the arrival of the international institutions tended to consist of people with a higher socio–economic position. Based on the dispersal of nationalities in the Brussels Region, we can see a strong correlation with the more affluent Belgian population and a preferential residential choice for the south–east and east side of the city (Corijn and Vloeberghs, 2009). Studies pointing to the concrete socio–geographical impact of the international institutions on Brussels have until now mainly focused on non–Belgian EU officials. Although EU officials can be found living all over the Region, they are well represented in the south–eastern and eastern municipalities. In particular, in this quadrant they are well represented in the neighbourhoods in the First Crown close to the European Quarter (i.e., Ixelles, Etterbeek, Saint–Gilles) and, increasingly, in the residential areas further to the south–east (Vandermotten, et al., 2008). Although we can see their residential choices within the wider (and historical) context of the social–spatial structuring of Brussels, these EU officials are now having a specific impact on this general trend. More specifically, in the wider Brussels context of a growing population paralleled by growing housing demand, together with an insufficient private and public offering of low– and middle–income housing, in recent years, EU officials with their higher purchase power have contributed to an increase in rent and purchase prices in these specific areas. As a consequence, these neighbourhoods became less affordable for the original Belgian middle class, also, impacting surrounding municipalities by ‘forcing’ potential owners to look at these cheaper areas and contributing to an increase in prices there too. However, this influx of European nationals also had the beneficial effect of propelling real strategies for the urban repopulation and revitalization of certain neighbourhoods, especially in the First Crown around the European Quarter, but also increasingly in the inner city. This seems to give way to processes of gentrification: the arrival of the Europeans has led to an increase in prices, forcing the original inhabitants to move to other areas in Brussels or even outside Brussels (Bernard, 2008).

Against this backdrop, our findings can be understood in terms of the socio–spatial dynamics of an increasing group of temporary workers (expats) in their relocation to Brussels — arguably directly linked to the presence of international institutions — as they seem to some extent to be caught up in similar processes. Furthermore, although our application is targeted at all kinds of EU nationals who may move to Brussels for professional reasons, our findings here concern predominantly middle–class EU citizens and show that the use of the app on a micro level is determined by a broader dynamic of urban structures and development. As mentioned earlier, the mobile application did not provide any guidance as to municipality and area to be selected. Thus, the findings serve to draw the attention of designers intending to implement such design solutions by providing specific city data (e.g., on crime) or generating user profiles to the need for careful reflection on such practices, which seem to foster socio–spatial divisions in the city.

2. Personalising the exploration of the selected neighbourhood and properties

Although a pressure for efficient time management (given the sense of urgency to find a place) could be felt among the participants, our observations showed that being ‘on the move’ looking for housing in Brussels did not mean moving straight from property A to property B and making a choice on the basis of property description, rental price or physical viewing of property alone. All participants deliberately planned the exploration in their time off, either after working hours or at the weekend. This gave them some time to explore the neighbourhood in order to check whether advice provided by employers, friends, relatives or city guides was correct, as well as to check on whether the neighbourhood was actually one in which they could see themselves living.

In this regard, participants could be seen to constantly use the mobile application and its geo–localization functions with points of interest in order to ‘personalize’ the experience of looking for a property. Hence they obtained a more personalized impression of the urban space, and in particular of an immediate vicinity. On the one hand, personalizing their searches by selecting specific points of interest such as public transport, supermarkets or sports facilities increased a priori chances that a certain property or neighbourhood would be explored. As our Austrian participant explained:

Without such an application, I would scan quickly on public transport and on bars that I would see from the main roads. These are two indicators that the neighbourhood is frequented by people and not dead. With these points of interests, I immediately see a greater potential. Definitely, if I did not have the app, the neighbourhood where I am going now would already be skipped. Now I see that there is much more to explore.

On the other hand, when in front of a property, they could also be seen to quickly explore selected and displayed points of interest after having viewed the property (e.g., that they happened to pass by and liked). However, given the limited information available for specific points of interest (exact distance from their position, specific name, e.g., name of grocery store), the phone was frequently used to browse the Internet and retrieve additional information.

3. Rewriting the urban script provided

While the choice of municipalities and neighbourhoods could be seen to occur between broader socio–spatial structuring processes in the city, as soon as people were on the move in the urban space the potential of location–based technologies, as employed by our participants to guide or carve out their own urban narrative, became apparent.

When the participants started to walk around using the mobile application, they almost at once began using it to explore the neighbourhoods they passed on their way to a particular property they wanted to visit. On several occasions they became interested in a new neighbourhood or property which they had not initially planned to visit. While for two of our participants this remained purely a ‘virtual discovery’ (quickly scanning the neighbourhood by a selection of points of interest), in the case of our Austrian participant and of the Portuguese–Czech couple, it led them to redirect their exploration. As a result, they both ended by moving into a neighbourhood generally quite unknown to middle–class EU migrants. This was much appreciated, since they clearly had ambivalent feelings about being (too much) associated with the rather privileged image of the expat community.

Furthermore, the application’s ability to combine commercially available property data with open data on the Brussels Region offered as geo–localization also quickly gave participants a sense of control over the quality of information. It allowed them to check whether the property descriptions provided were correct (and not just ‘advertising language’ used to attract affluent, middle–class EU migrants not very familiar with Brussels). Both the German and the Italian participants came upon incorrect information (house was no longer for sale). On another occasion it was not immediately clear which house was for rent, since posters in the windows showed ‘for sale’ and not ‘for rent’. They were unhappy with this until, they checked the house number and realised that the property for rent was next door. However, there were no signs at all that this finally influenced their decision not to retain the property in question.

Finally, although this function was not available in our prototype, the participants often emphasized that it would be good if, while walking around, they could write down and share their impressions, not only to help people relocating in future, but also because they saw this as an opportunity to counter some statements about the municipalities and neighbourhoods given by friends or read online or in brochures (cleanliness, noise, green space). Thus we can see how, by exploiting movement, locative mobile technology can be used to counterbalance certain dominant versions of the urban space provided by the authorities or by commercial interests.

These findings yielded a preliminary insight into the ways in which the relocation experience could be perceived and understood. More specifically, the design–oriented approach to developing the mobile relocation service application highlighted the transitory nature of the process undertaken by these new citizens traversing and exploring Brussels and using the application to search for a property. While the purpose of the application is to facilitate a property search, the findings seem to suggest that the points of interest are crucial, not only to selecting property criteria, but also to becoming better acquainted with the cultural and other facilities that the city has to offer. In this context, the co–ideated interface — that is, the fact that expats themselves were involved from the very early stages of idea generation and design — helped the designers to learn about patterns of relocation and their design implications. The findings indicate that these issues and the possible impact on the social, economic and spatial dynamics of newcomers to the city should be carefully considered by designers.

The application can be said to generate a particular urban awareness that new citizens can manage for themselves, for example via their favourite functions, rather than simply an understanding of the city and the house search as (transitory) destinations in themselves. The application also mediates this awareness via its GPS (and augmented reality) function, informing new citizens about particular nearby properties for sale or rent, or points of interest such as a park or a swimming pool. In this way, the application not only mediates, but engages expats to act or even interact with the urban space, thereby highlighting the opportunity to seamlessly integrate surroundings and set objectives with everyday needs and interests, and thus perhaps inviting them to imagine settling in a particular location.

In the experience of inhabiting and traversing the city, guided by a mixture of ‘destinations’ (i.e., property search) and a flow of para–mobility information, the importance of socio–spatial dynamics and how these are operationalized in the design of the mobile application becomes apparent. This can help to define a concept of ‘in–between–ness’ in the sociospatial dimension of migration processes that, although still quite an abstract and high–level concept, can link the understanding of everyday life with the relevant design elements identified by the findings.




This paper has focused on improving our understanding of an emerging generation of mobile applications that views mobility as a way to create interactive experiences relying on or exploiting movement and space in the urban context. This contemporary generation of applications is establishing a body of research that is starting to present a less instrumental account of urban living by looking for inspiration not only in the available technologies, but also in the broader experiences of urban life. In this regard, we have sought to address, through our focus on the urban mobility of professionals as an everyday fact in the context of the city of Brussels, one kind of experience that is often ignored in present urban computing design — the transition from one place to another, from one country to another.

We have argued that it necessary to adopt a social view of urban computing design. This provides a more realistic view than that of either celebrants or sceptics of more common techno–centric approaches that tend to present the city as an empty and homogeneous space to be ‘filled’ with mobile applications connecting citizens anywhere and anytime. There has been a tendency to frame mobility in purely functional ways, and hence to problematize it from angles such as disruption, dislocation, and disconnection in data flows when moving from one place to the next. In our argument, inspired by theories of the social shaping of technology and particularly by domestication research, a social view of technology development and use was developed, highlighting the role of users as co–creators in the early stages of design.

By drawing on a design–oriented approach, we have explored a mobile relocation service application design for professionals. The experience of using this application has been streamlined with the aim of supporting users when they are actually on the move in Brussels looking for a property and for surrounding points of interests. The application allows easy filtering of properties and points of interest near to the user’s location as registered by the smartphone’s GPS capabilities, thus also allowing for the motion and spatial experiences of emerging house–hunting practices. The findings demonstrate that the combination of ‘destination’ and the flow of para–mobility information can extend the concept of in–between–ness. This is done by empirically linking the understanding of relocation as an everyday practice with the identification of relevant design aspects that may impact on the spatiality of places and behaviour in certain urban areas.

We find that critical reflection is necessary to the dynamic of ‘software’ and city governance, highlighting complex circuits of power and politics. From this perspective, mobile applications such as the one described here can be seen as a particular set of tools for operationalizing forms of management and regulation, for example, government databases relating to people, households, firms and so forth. In order to mediate and facilitate the organization and running of the city and of urban life more generally, more research is necessary. For example, the ‘translation’ of such applications in terms of governance systems (e.g., (meta)data, standard, and routines) should be studied. Rather than focusing purely on a software engineering approach, future research should also take into account how data concerning the urban space is conceptualized within the framework of programming and users. This can deepen our understanding of the sociospatial dynamic of (transitory) life in the city. End of article


About the authors

Shenja Van Der Graaf is Senior Researcher at iMinds–SMIT (Vrije Universiteit Brussel), Visiting Senior Fellow at Department of Media and Communication (London School of Economics and Political Science), and Fellow at ID3 MediaHub (MIT). Her research interests include socio–digital systems, organization and governance design, and information quality. Dr. van der Graaf holds a Ph.D. in media and communication from the London School of Economics and Political Science, U.K.
E–mail: Shenja [dot] vanderGraaf [at] iminds [dot] be

Wim Vanobberghen is a Ph.D. candidate and researcher at iMinds–SMIT (Vrije Universiteit Brussel). He conducts user research to digital technologies and media historical research into domestication processes of past media (radio and television) in Belgium. He holds a master degree in history and one in communication sciences from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel.
E–mail: wim [dot] vanobberghen [at] vub [dot] ac [dot] be



1. Weiser, 1991, p. 1.

2. Bell and Dourish, 2007, pp. 133–143.

3. Ibid.

4. Bassoli, 2010, p. 211.

5. Ibid.

6. It was developed in the context of the European Platform for Intelligent Cities (EPIC; CIP_PSP) project and explores the particular implementations of the cloud platform paradigm as the basis for a pan–European service delivery platform, so as to enable a more holistic approach to making cities ‘smarter’, wedding a design–oriented approach to public service reform to future–oriented technologies such as augmented reality. The project started in November 2010 and finished in August 2013. Both Web and mobile components consist of a closed and open test phase of the design involving designers and end users, as well as city representatives and SMEs such as relocation agencies. The Web component comprises five iterative cycles (with about 300 users) and the mobile three cycles (currently with 30 users). Currently, the mobile component is in its third test phase, which also includes participant observations, but only preliminary results of which are reported in this paper.

7. The information on properties available in Brussels comes from multiple data sources made available through the Internet. Instead of interacting with these data sources directly and individually, all of the information needed is brought together and made accessible via the Web and mobile components through one single, custom–built set of Web services, which is currently hosted on the EPIC platform.

8. The mobile application is a ‘native’ mobile application, meaning that it is compiled specifically for the smartphone platform and that it runs as a separate application on the mobile device. Native applications enjoy better support from the smartphone’s hardware features, such as the camera, which is needed for the application’s augmented reality feature. The mobile application is currently available on Apple’s iOS platform (iOS devices with iOS 4.0 and upwards) as well as on Google’s Android platform (Android devices with Android 2.3.0 and upwards). Furthermore, the application is built using Appcelerator Titanium, one of many so–called cross–platform mobile development software development kits. The advantage of this framework is that the same code base can be used to compile the application into an iOS or an Android application, with only small adjustments. For the development of the mobile application, we started from the MVC design philosophy. MVC is a way of structuring code that cleanly separates user–interface related code from the actual business logics of the application, ensuring scalability and flexibility to add other screen sizes, devices or even operating systems.

9. This is also necessary because research about Brussels expats is scarce. Most reports or studies in which they appear only provide general information about their dispersal in the Brussels Region (which commune they live in) or their numbers (how many in total or how many of a particular EU nationality). Research into their daily lives, on issues such as how they relocated, is hardly available, apart perhaps from some general remarks in motivational studies. Only recently, the Brussels–Europe Liaison Office, founded by the Brussels regional authority as e a helpdesk for expats, has launched an online survey more about some of these aspects (how their families are composed, where they go out in the city etc. ...) but the results were not yet available at the time of writing.

10. The closed phase was guided by several scenarios of different households moving to Brussels.

11. So far, five participant observations have been conducted, with 15 more planned for the evaluation phase (summer 2013).

12. When in each measurement cycle a negative response of higher than 10 percent was recorded, a change of the iteration in that cycle was considered. The survey allowed for some quantitative analysis, such as descriptive analysis and correlation analysis evaluating the quality of the design from its early stages.

13. The third cycle was launched on 1 March 2013.

14. The fairly small sample size may suffer from a voluntary bias, and hence, may not accurately represent the ‘Brussels expat’. Further research will need to be conducted on expat profiles, such as age and single versus family relocation practices, in order to better generalize the findings.

15. The participants reported that time constraints, but also uncertainty about the length of the contract or being unfamiliar with the city, made them shy away, at first, from longer–term rental or house purchase.

16. The current municipalities within the First Crown are: Brussels City (the administrative area of the municipality of Brussels city is not confined to its historical surface within the second medieval city wall, but was enlarged north–eastwards and south–east wards), Molenbeek, Anderlecht, Saint–Josse–ten–Node, Schaerbeek, Ixelles and Saint–Gilles.

17. Municipalities: Auderghem, Woluwe Saint–Pierre, Woluwe–Saint–Lambert, Berchem–Saint–Agathe, Jette, Koekelberg, Uccle, Evere, Forest, Ganshoren.



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Appendix 1.
Source: Mobile Relocation Service Application Survey (EPIC, 2012).
Note: *Cycle 1: Yes/No. **Cycle 2: Yes/No/No Answer. Some 80 percent said they were (extremely) satisfied with the overall experience underpinned by the amount of time it took to complete the tasks in the scenario.
ScenarioCycle 1
Cycle 2
Cycle 2: Number of minutes to complete task
Select number of municipalities 70% 73% 5–10 minutes 57%
Define property search criteria (price, number of rooms, ...) 90% 82% 5–10 minutes 63%
Explore POI around property 80% 64% 5–10 minutes 67%
Explore POI in street view   78% 5–10 minutes 71%



Appendix 2.
Source: Mobile Relocation Service Application Survey (EPIC, 2012).
Note: *Values range from 1 to 9 (1=most important; 9=least important).
Content qualityRanking in order of importance (Mean)
 Cycle 1
Cycle 2
Transport facilities (bus, tram, metro stops,...)* 1.56 3.25
Everyday utilities (markets, supermarkets, ...) 2.80 4.13%
Educational facilities (schools, ...) 4.43 5.25
Security and healthcare (police departments, pharmacies, ...) 4.46 5.00
Recreation areas and sports facilities (parks, sports centres,...) 4.93 6.38
Cultural facilities (theatres, opera houses, museums,...) 5.50 3.38
Institutions and town hall (EU buildings, town halls, embassies,...) 6.12 6.75
Services for disabled persons 7.20 5.00
Religious services (churches, mosques,...) 7.93 5.88



Editorial history

Received 20 October 2013; accepted 27 October 2013.

Creative Commons License
“At Home in Brussels: Professional mobility as a service” by Shenja van der Graaf and Wim Vanobberghen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–NonCommercial–ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

At Home in Brussels: Professional mobility as a service
by Shenja van der Graaf and Wim Vanobberghen.
First Monday, Volume 18, Number 11 - 4 November 2013
doi: 10.5210/fm.v18i11.4951.