Saturday, November 9, 2013

Sousveillance nation

Sousveillance (/sˈvləns/ soo-vay-lənsFrench pronunciation: ​[suvɛjɑ̃s]): most commonly defined as the recording of an activity by a participant in the activity typically by way of small wearable or portable personal technologies.

Lately I've started to realize just how many people are riding with cameras on their helmets or handlebars. Yesterday, my Twitter feed blew up over a video on YouTube of a cyclist being ticketed (back in June) for taking up the whole lane at a pinch point. (The #ottbike hashtag went a little nuts with tweets to and from pretty much every officially-tweeting Ottawa Police Service representative.)

The cyclist fought the ticket successfully, I assume because the city's own website says:

Cyclists are required to ride as close as possible to the right curb of the roadway, except when:

  • Travelling at the normal speed of traffic
  • Avoiding hazardous conditions
  • The roadway is too narrow for a bicycle and a motor vehicle to travel safely side-by-side
  • Tiding alongside another cyclist in a manner that does not impede the normal movement of traffic
  • Preparing to make a left turn, passing another vehicle, or using a one-way street (in which case riding alongside the left curb is permitted) 
Well, I'd call that pretty clear. . . the first three are clearly demonstrated in this guy's video. He's going at the speed of traffic; the potholes are terrible; the road's too narrow to share.

Cyclists, increasingly, are getting cameras, and they're doing it to defend themselves, primarily, maybe with a side helping of educating the public. It's a lot like the dash cam situation in Russia, where because of insurance fraud and corrupt police - and because the courts prefer video evidence to eyewitness accounts - a huge number of drivers are recording everything that happens. Having a dash cam can actually lower your insurance premiums in Russia, I understand. (Bonus: you might get some truly crazy footage.)

Cyclists are in much the same position: if  you're nearly right-hooked, or passed too close by a heavy truck or a bus, or when you're given a ticket for taking the lane when there was reason to do so, it's way better to have evidence rather than your subjective opinion. I can't count the number of times someone's done something dangerous around me and it all happened too fast to identify the car or the plate number, and good luck catching up to a car to get that information. Then, if you actually want to make a complaint, you're stuck with how it felt to you, which isn't as concrete as camera footage.

So cyclists start recording. Some cameras record for a set amount of time, then loop, so you can 'set it and forget it,' and only pull the footage if something happens. You're just always recording, every time you roll out there onto the road. Clip on your helmet, kick your leg over, turn on your camera, and step on the pedals. It sounds a little crazy to me, but also like a recognition - that camera's part of your safety system, like your lights and bell and helmet.

YouTube channels like BikeViewCA are full of video clips demonstrating close calls, dangerous stretches of road, and confrontational drivers. (There are also clips showing beautiful days and exhilarating rides, but they're outnumbered.) And it's getting so that non-cyclists know about the cameras, too: there's this angry driver who sees the helmet cam and shouts, "Yeah, I hope you're getting this on camera!" at the cyclist while yelling her (faulty) convictions about the rules of the road.

I've thought about getting one myself. Today, watching the driver of a pickup truck towing a trailer have a complete meltdown because the person in the lane in front of him had stopped, third in line, at a red light, thereby blocking his access to the right turn he clearly desperately needed to make now now now - well, watching that, I thought again about pricing out GoPros. Sure, I want it so I can defend myself. Like the Russian drivers, we cyclists need to be proactive, we need to keep tabs, we (apparently) need to "sousveil."

But I'd also love to be able to share some of the gorgeous rides I've been on (and I admit I would also have fun taking it out rock climbing). I once biked with one hand and filmed a large chunk of my ride home along the Riverside Path with my iPhone, with the intention of someday making it into a video so my parents could see my awesome commute. (Still haven't done that; still might. I have the background tune all picked out.)


  1. Cameras don't have to be a big hassle. I don't wear mine on my helmet or anything, just on a handlebar mount, and it charges over USB on my desk while I'm at work. If I ever need it some day, I'll be glad I had it.

  2. I'm thinking of getting one also - both for reasons of safety (i.e. like the first cyclist- to back up an incident) and more so, just to show how beautiful it is to ride outside! There are currently several sectors downtown Toronto where I currently take the lane due to massive amounts of construction. Much as I hate Toronto drivers and their negative attitude towards cyclists, I have to say I have never once run into any issues from anyone when I take those entire lanes at those sectors.

  3. If you get a GoPro, you could record awesome climbing videos, too!

    Hm... also, consider other brands -- I've heard from a couple people that GoPros are the current "name" brand, but that other such-type cameras are better and/or cheaper at the same quality level.

    1. Well, yeah. I kinda used GoPro as a shorthand, the same way people use Xerox and Kleenex.