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The Information City

airqindic1.jpgWorldChanging contributor Régine Debatty regularly posts fascinating links over at her main website, We Make Money Not Art. A couple of recent posts, however, stood out for me as terrific examples of a theme we return to regularly at WorldChanging: the integration of information networks and the urban experience. What made these two entries so compelling is that, together, they demonstrated that the relationship between information and urbanity is two way. With the first item, networked information systems are used to enhance one's experience of the city with frequently-updated pollution data; with the second, one's experience of space and layout in the city is used to make digital urban planning simulations more accessible to non-specialists.

airqindic2.jpgThe Public Air Quality Indicator is a project from Jørgen Brandt, senior scientist at Denmark's National Environmental Research Institute and visual artist Nis Rømer. The Indicator is very much a "make visible the invisible" endeavor, as it conveys information about particulate and chemical pollution that would otherwise be non-obvious. The project is open source and copyright-free, and the creators encourage others to adopt the technology. The underlying concept is simple:

The indicator takes data from the Internet about the current degree of pollution and prognosis for the next two days. The data is supplied by The National department of Environmental Investigation and is updated 4 times a day. It works in the following way: a computer reads a web page, sorts the information and send them to the serial port.

...but the variety of presentations possible with this technology is impressive. While the LED-based display, looking something like a crosswalk signal, would probably fit an urban environment most readily, the version of the indicator that opens and closes a window at the City Hall and displays a brightly colored sign to show pollution levels is perhaps the most philosophically attractive. As the designers note, "the indicator installs a ventilation between the political and the public space."

physicalsimv.jpgThe Physical SimVillage project, conversely, is all about bringing one's perceptions of city life into the virtual space. Designed by Saranont Limpananont, a student at NYU originally from Thailand, Physical SimVillage allows a designer to craft a virtual urban environment using physical objects.

There are two interaction parts in this project i.e. “physical + virtual” and “cyberspace”. The physical part consists of a table with simple architectural wooden models on it and a view of 3-D environment projected on the table top from above. The physical models are basically the same shape as the buildings in the view projected down. From this way, users can relate the 3-D view to the physical “sketched” models.
Plus, users from the table side can observe the position of the avatars of other users who is walking in the cyberspace. Users from the table side can move the models around to any desired position on the table. (The projected 3-D view will follow the movement of the models and reposition itself accordingly to the position of the wood models.) Hence, the players in cyberspace, who are able to walk (virtually) inside the environment, will see his/her environment suddenly changes because a new environment has been created for him/her to experience.

This has the ultimate effect of allowing designers to operate in a language and structure that makes sense to them, while allowing clients/participants to operate in that same environment but mediated through an entirely different paradigm. Furthermore, the designer does not have to translate the sketches and physical concepts into a computer language; the system automates that process, allowing both designer and participant to focus on their respective perceptions and needs.

As the Physical SimVillage concept is a student project, it's not something that would necessarily be available to local urban planning commissions and architects in the near future. That's too bad; I would expect that such a physical/virtual environment mix would lead to wholly unexpected discoveries during the design process. The Public Air Quality Indicator project, conversely, is something that could be implemented widely today. Score another one for open source...

Comments (3)

Have the students keep track of the pollution levels as part of their curriculum. They'd learn the practical aspects of science and children can be effective monitors of their parents' promises and duties.

Not that linking the HVAC of City Hall to local pollution levels is a bad thing.

BTW, local monitoring is a problem. Last I heard, the nearest EPA air quality measurement is outside the city limits and pubic release of the data is not always timely.

In my peregrinations tonight, I found this which seems to be a portable version of the Public Air Quality Indicator


"As we move through the city, mobile devices allow us to enjoy remote networking and immersion in personal entertainment. These preoccupations, however, lessen our sensitivity to what is happening directly around us, and often we learn about our own environmental conditions through mediated sources.

"What if mobile technology could reconnect us to our surroundings by observing environmental data directly, data that had been obscured to us before?

"With my thesis I hope to enable people for playful grass-roots monitoring, where the presence of contaminants in a community can be known and charted by anyone. These explorations would encourage a more conscious individual behaviour, spreading cumulatively to neighbouring communities."

Neighbourhood Satellites is a Masters Thesis project by Myriel Milicevic .
Interaction Design Institute Ivrea, 2005

I find it interesting as well. Just came across some more quantum physics theory that really made me think as well. All matter consists of thoughts. Maybe I should go back to my apartment and read. www.craigrom.com


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