Project Questions for Fellowship Week 3

This week I had some down time in between meetings with partners and collecting data sources. I’m using the time to ask thorny questions about cities and neighborhoods as they pertain to my fellowship work.  While I’m creating an art project— with the help of other— over just a few weeks and won’t be able to answer many on these questions, I find that partial answers will help with design decisions and the evolution of the project.

The project I’m working on is a real-time interface to city neighborhoods. The interface shows recent neighborhood activity. It’s a glimpse into the pulse of the neighborhood at a given moment. The user can explore different layers of data, such as transportation, environment, and housing. The base map of the environment layer, for instance, changes to match the basic environmental conditions such as sunlight and pollution. The idea is to give the user a sense or what’s going on in the here and now. The results are less than scientific; what Pedro Cruz calls figurative visualizations of the urban environment.

What does data tell us about a neighborhood or street corner?

It’s tempting to ask what data can tell us about neighborhoods or cities? However, city data no matter how large give an incomplete reflection of public and private life. I want to avoid the mistake of showing all of the networks and infrastrute of the city, without considering the people who look into this mirror and live in it— ignoring what the place feels like.

Instead of trying to quantify the place with data, I want to explore the digital as a separate layer but also as a reflection or mirror of neighborhood activity. This is what Anthony Townsend calls the “symbiosis of place and cyberspace.” It’s more about how to understand data based upon the neighborhood, rather than the other way around.

  • How do people interpret and interact the visualizations of the real-time neighborhood data?
  • What connections do they make?
  • How does the history and culture of a place change the interpretation of data?
  • How does the neighborhoods past provide context for the here and now?
  • What can user discover in the digital reflection of a neighborhood?

How is the project different than apps and maps on a phone?

I’m interested in the ube-rization of everything, not that I necessarily approve of this trend. The work of another program fellow, Andrew Kleindolph, starts to get at some of the more problematic parts of the sharing economy, especially with regards to labor.

On the street level, what does it mean that users can see and control transit and other services from their pocket? Ridesharing services make mobile devices magic devices for summoning transport across the city. Similarly, map providers magical routes around traffic jams and between side streets. Our project very well may show these paths— and later analysis may compare the speed, direction, and associations of these trips. The project considers which data captured by sensors, social networks, and smart city infrastructure is useful to everyday users of the neighborhood.

On some level, our project will explore whether this magical quality can be added to a You-are-Here map, where the users see their bus or train arriving. Could a bus stop have a more desirable information than a mobile app? NextBus allows people to doing on-the-spot travel planning. If the bus is going to be another 15 minutes, the rider might decide to shop. If the bus is going to be even longer, the people might stop at a cafe or make a different travel plans. The user gains control of their wait time (Vanky). What if a service like Next Bus provided other information about the neighborhood? Would it be useful and how would it change people’s behavior? Which leads to another question:

What does real-time urban info mean to people who are exploring the neighborhood or finding their way?

I’m a big fan of the projects by the MIT Sensable lab. Like the LIVE Singapore and Real-time Roam projects, our project looks at real-time human activity from digital network as shares this data directly with the public. Our project is much more interested in the hyperlocal, walkable area of a neighborhood, so it’s more about the shape of activity is a small area, rather than a pictures and patterns of an entire city or district. It’s not a city operating system or an effort to study city dynamics. Additionally, much like the Urbanflow project in Helsinki, our project will encourage interaction and discovery, with a focus on interesting artifacts of human activity, such as Foursquare check-in and Instagram photos.




When people are aware of real-time information, it changes their behavior, resulting in feedback loops between transit and other system. Another feedback loop is the connection between displaying data and collecting it. Ideally, remote sensors in cities not only collect data, but also allow it to be seen and used by everyday users.
Along these lines, I’m working with Gray Area on a related survey that will allow any person on the street to submit information about themselves and the neighborhood.

How can a map or city interface help people discover stories?

Last week I did some experimenting with photos and stories. I recorded all Instagram photos during a 12-hour period on Market Street on the day of the SF Pride Parade.

By doing some basic automated collection and analysis, I could quickly spot trends, such as the number of Apple employees and the number of people who wanted to take a selfie with Tim Cook. Some of these stories would be apparent to anyone on the street, but events on Market or in the Mission cover a fairly larger area. One question is how can I compress the loop of collection-to-observation and make an interface that allows users to spot interesting social events within a few seconds. Perhaps I do some background analysis before a user sees the screen and small bits of information bubbles up to encourage interaction.

As with this experiment, all of the data displayed in real-time will be captured in a historical database for further analysis and visualization. Similarly, I’ll be recording user interactions with the interface itself.

Next, I’m thinking more about these questions and deciding what additional question I need to consider regarding the project UX, visual design, and cartography. I’ll write more about this next week.


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