1.20 / Review

SENSEable Cities: Exploring Urban Futures

By Spencer Young July 28, 2010

Since 2003, MIT’s SENSEable City Laboratory has been coupling cities (e.g. New York, Amsterdam, Rome) with technologies (e.g. mobile phones, sensors, software) in order to turn this once dormant and calloused relationship between place and mechanism into one that is sensitive and revealing. Currently exhibiting fifteen examples of such efforts on sleek plasma screens at their fitting gallery location in downtown San Francisco, Gray Area Foundation for the Arts utilizes SENSEable’s goals to render otherwise invisible urban phenomena and networks visible. In some instances, the concerns are strictly environmental: pollution is tracked and registered in real time via The Copenhagen Wheel (2009)—a sexy, self-righteous track bike that analyzes air quality without contributing to its degradation. This concern is repeated with Trash Track (2009), which follows the route and distance (energy expenditure) trash takes from homes to landfills. But other times, the drives of these projects are more curious and explorative: cell phone usage is traced and measured within and across cities based around quotidian and celebratory events. The difference is significant. While responsible and feel-good, The Copenhagen Wheel and Trash Track are limiting; their results can only elicit non-negotiable responses like, “Pollution levels are too high in these areas,” or “This piece of trash isn't carpooling and has been taking the scenic route.” The rest of the works in the exhibit—those that point to the dynamism between people and their cities—are more open-ended, illuminating, and ripe with interpretation.

For instance, The New York Talk Exchange project (2008) maps phone and IT data used to connect New York to the rest of the world. Through crystal clear and colorfully animated graphics, it becomes immediately apprehensible which regions of the globe get communications privilege with—or bombardment by—New Yorkers during certain hours of the day. Witnessing the immense, totalizing scale of this data being projected in tandem with its real-time connection to a rotating globe of contact points is both exhilarating and overwhelming. At first, one might feel honored with information normally reserved for politicians’ eyes, but then, the projection loops back again and all intelligible information is lost. As a whole, what these contact points suggest is difficult to discern; the areas that receive little to no

SENSEable City Laboratory. The Copenhagen Wheel, 2009; documentary video. Courtesy of SENSEable City Laboratory, Cambridge, MA.

SENSEable City Laboratory.  Obama | One People, 2009; documentary video. Courtesy of SENSEable City Laboratory, Cambridge, MA.

contact are arguably more telling. Instead, the immediate interpretation of this data via an engaging, gorgeous display aesthetic is most compelling.

Other efforts by the Lab, such as Obama | One People (2009), anchor communications data around an event—in this case, Barack Obama's inauguration. Throughout the day, text messages and phone calls are represented by their levels of usage within the D.C. region and their connection with the nation's states. As inauguration day proceeds, one sees levels of communication intensify variably, as portions of the map and grid pop and drop to what could be ecstatic texts or inflammatory phone calls. Surprisingly, Wyoming seems to show the most action as it jumps from the map like a crazed child on a trampoline. But what, I wonder, was the nature of this excitement? Celebratory? Defamatory?

Unfortunately, most of the anomalies and specificities in “SENSEable Cities” can be lost on the viewer, as the variables are too broad to generate any specific meanings or relations. Amsterdam (2008), for instance, displays the city’s New Year’s text message activity spiking through Amsterdam’s landscape as midnight hits. This looks cool because it generates flowing SMS architecture based on a specific event, but this text-location-event relationship does not reveal anything concrete. Instead, Amsterdam and several of the other works on display seem better suited as screensavers. One reason for this is that strong, intelligible data requires creeping into crevices, and people, who tend towards privacy, will reject this creep even if it brings enlightening information.

I have to congratulate data liberators like MIT’s SENSEable City Laboratory for getting us past the crude, static bar graphs and pie charts of yesterday to the arcs and flows of lovely color on slick plasma screens today. This new turn in animated data visualization deserves its own aesthetic trajectory and place in the art world alongside that of graphic design—replete with its own histories, theories, and criticisms. The fact that SENSEable cities has shown its pretty face in art zones like MoMA, the Venice Biennale, Expo 2008, and Design Museum Barcelona is evidence of this. Yet, despite the charming spectacles SENSEable shows on the TV screens, I still can't help but wonder about Wyoming.


“SENSEable Cities: Exploring Urban Futures” is on view at Gray Area Foundation For the Arts in San Francisco through August 11, 2010.

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