News & Views

HereHere: NYC Data Speaks Up

by Nick Parish

Kati London is the senior researcher at the Future Social Experience (FUSE) Labs, part of Microsoft Research NYC, and this week her and her six-person team debuted HereHere, a project that uses the city’s public 311 data about neighbourhoods to bring them to life and encourage civic awareness. 

Previously, as part of Area/Code, which later became Zynga NYC, London developed Botanicalls, a device which enabled plants to tweet based on sensor information, as well as projects like Macon Money, supported by the Knight Foundation, which created a collaborative currency for local exchange based in Macon, Georgia. 

Nick Parish speaks to London about developing the project, how she hopes people will engage with it, and her work as a designer.



How did this project start? It seems to try to bring data to life in a similar way to Botanicalls, but on a much bigger scale.

There’s two pieces to it, HereHere, which is a public-facing thing, and the reusable infrastructure, the Sentient Data Server, so there’s two projects in tandem. One is very much related to the work and interaction model that we were exploring with Botanicalls, and the other is starting to think about data and the relationships with data.

How does working that way change the kind of products and services you design, as a designer and developer? 

I wanted to do a city-level exploration with the Sentient Data Server, and New York is a great city that has awesome, open data. We started with 311 data, looking at how to use that platform to make its cities and data have a human voice. But we also have to think about the social mechanics around that. Most of the people writing about this have been covering the map, but for me it’s about covering the Twitter stream of the neighbourhood. Just having the neighbourhood talking to you in your own voice, in the flow of your other things, how does that change things? If we frame with with these cartoons, are you more likely to share it, or contest the data, say ‘This isn’t the experience, this isn’t what’s going on.’ 

Now we just want to get some people to use it, then find out if there’s other data sets we can incorporate.  

The report seems true to life, for example, the stodgy Upper East Side has a lot of noise complaints, and industrial Long Island City today has ‘Hazmat Watchdog’. But how do we get beyond these kind of euphemisms? That seems to indicate that neighbourhood is a dumping ground.

We’re hoping that we’ll see characters emerge through the data, and see how people react to that. That’s one of the challenges about using one data set. Instead of that being a black box, or having 311 data being something people experience as data geeks, what we’re trying to experiment with is if we use these social cues and how language changes people’s reactions? 

For example, if the neighbourhood’s feeling distressed, or worried, or ashamed, offering homeless person assistance in response to that. Also, there’s some algorithmically-driven editorialsm happening here. For every neighborhood there’s 275 different personality elements that can be created. We surface three every time we get fresh data from the 311 API, three times daily, and that’s what creates the daily summary. What we’re looking for, what we’ve created our algorithms to determine, is what our system deems the most significant information to share with people. 


How do you hope design like this can drive civic engagement? 

It’s something we’re experimenting with. We’re not trying to be didactic; there’s no right or wrong way to engage as a citizen. What makes cities beautiful and rich is all the different kinds of human beings that are part of them. That creates an incredibly dynamic environment. 

We’re trying to insert ourselves as a part of the network, making everything a viral unit of content that can be shared, and trying to come up with new ways of framing this information that can be provocative or relevant. 

It’s not a game where we’re trying to keep you stuck on a mobile app, or a website. Our goal is to give you something interesting and intriguing that will help you engage. We want people to sign up and follow a neighborhood. Let us know if you find something that would be more helpful. Tell us: what would be more interesting?