Hacking Urban Data

Hacking Urban Data

 Text by Fanny Honegger, Junior Communications Manager, swissnex San Francisco

Why would 50 plus people spend an entire Saturday at swissnex San Francisco hunched over their computers? Because they’re vying for the chance to win the Urban Data Hackathon and get a shot at creating a public installation on San Francisco’s market street as part of the Urban Data Canvas. That’s why.

The Urban Data Canvas is one piece of the Urban Data Challenge Initiative and will be a public data display on Market Street in Downtown San Francisco in conjunction with the city’s Living Innovation Zones Initiative.

But to find the top talent to create the high-profile visualization, swissnex San Francisco partnered with Gray Area Art & Technology, Berkeley Center for New Media, and Arup to test each team’s skills during a 12-hour hackathon.


Josette Melchor talks at the Urban Data Hackathon at swissnex San Francisco

On a Saturday in February, the participating coders, artists, and hackers submitted 15 projects in the hopes of getting to collaborate on a,commissioned visualization piece displayed on Market Street for the next two years.

In the end, the winning team “Street Level CO2” won the grand prize for their proposal, which lets viewers experience CO2 emissions as a tangible obstruction in the street. The goal of this visualization was to inspire people to take an interest in the invisible emissions that surround them everyday along the Market Street corridor. From there, the team imagined future versions of the interface to educate people about the impact of CO2 and what they can do to help reduce it.



Why did they win? Tasked with the final decision was a jury including Toby Lewis of Arup; Josette Melchor, Executive Director and Co-Founder Gray Area Art & Technology; Shane Myrbeck, sound artist and Acoustics Consultant at Arup; Greg Niemeyer, Director of Berkeley Center for New Media; Casey Reas from processing.org; Emina Reissinger, Project Manager at swissnex San Francisco; and Barry Threw, artist and technical advisor at Gray Area Art & Technology.

According to the jury, their evaluation was based on the following three themes: user experience, data transparency and actionability.

1.) User Experience

The final piece needs to be compelling on an intellectual, emotional, and visual level. The data visualization should be eye-catching, but also educational.

“At mid Market Street, there are many things competing for people’s attention,” says Barry Threw from Gray Area Art & Technology.

Greg Niemeyer, Professor and Director of the Center for New Media at UC Berkeley says, “I want the visualization to be surprising and the realization of yourself being represented in the data to be so immediate that you automatically start to interact with it.”

Josette Melchor, Executive Director and Co-Founder Gray Area Art & Technology, would like the final project to become a community space. “People should spend 30 minutes to an hour—as much time as you would spend at a workshop, learning something new.”

2.) Data Transparency

Data transparency makes the data accessible, gives people a chance to understand what the data represents, and provides insights about the city.

Emina Reissinger, Project Manager at swissnex San Francisco, says “Transparency is important in order for people to understand that the information the data contains has an impact on their lives and that they, in turn, have an impact on their environment.”

In a time where data ownership is discussed daily, Shane Myrbeck, Acoustics Consultant at Arup, says he also views the project as a statement: In the Urban Data Canvas, data is out and available for everyone to see and use.

3.) Actionability

To make a project foster action is difficult, says Casey Reas. The Urban Data Canvas aims not just to just narrate, but to have an impact on people in terms of behavioral change and awareness.

Greg Niemeyer says that he hopes the project will spark ideas and grass roots action rather than policies suggested from top-down narratives.

Shane Myrbeck, meanwhile, reminds everyone watching that we will only learn what is possible once the project is up and running. “Its actionability will only be clear in its environment—you may have to modify it once it’s up and you see how people interact with it.”

Stay tuned for more on the Urban Data Canvas and the Urban Data Challenge 2014!