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Designing a New Way to Interact With Your City

Colleen Miller's See Spot Run NYC finds off-leash areas for dogs and their owners Last October, I happened to be visiting the new MFA in...

Colleen Miller's See Spot Run NYC finds off-leash areas for dogs and their owners

Last October, I happened to be visiting the new MFA in Interaction Design program at the School of Visual Arts in New York where I overheard a group of students who were talking more like urban planners than interaction designers. They were tossing out factoids about public transportation and park acreage, comparing stats on traffic and recycling. They were discussing their new assignment: Chris Fahey's Interaction Design Fundamentals class had been tasked with creating applications-what we all now call "apps"-for handheld mobile devices. The excitement was stemming from the fact that their tools had bubbled up right from below their feet: They were taking the city's raw data and manufacturing it into usable information for its residents and visitors.


Derek Chan's NYC Landmark Hunt turns sightseeing into a game; Kristin Gräfe's MillionTreesNYC used a New York City Parks social events calendar

The assignment, it turned out, was inspired by a real-life opportunity: NYC BigApps, a competition initiated by Mayor Michael Bloomberg's office, whose winners were announced last Friday. More than $20,000 in prizes were awarded to the creators of apps that range from grand prize winner WayFinder NYC, which gives directions to the nearest subway station, to Big Apple Ed, which helps educate parents (and students) about local schools. For Fahey, the assignment was the perfect way to tie together several in-school concepts into a real-world project. "In class we had already been discussing ubiquitous computing, social computing, and system design: the idea that interactivity was something not just embedded in devices and machines, but also into larger systems like companies and cities," he says.

Katie Koch's NYCgo Restaurant Finder pulls hotel and restaurant information from New York's tourism site,

In the last few years, more and more cities have opened up their vast troves of uncrunched data for designers, creating an unparalleled opportunity for citizens to become involved in government and urban issues. For interaction designers, this also represents a very concrete way to be of service to their community, and can help urban leaders to think about them as more than just the people to turn to when they need a new website designed. "One of the most interesting qualities of interaction design is that, even when you're given a limited set of inputs and outputs, a lot of powerful stuff can still be accomplished," says Fahey. "Think of the Nike+ ecosystem, where a whole universe of meaning is opened up by simply two bits of data: (a) time, and (b) the number of steps you took in that time. Everything in the Nike+ ecosystem, from the data visualizations to the training programs, to the competitions and communities, comes from people generating these two bits of data."

Stephanie Aaron's Book 'Em integrates data from three systems: the New York Public Library, the Queens Public Library, and the Brooklyn Public Library

While none of the students have actually produced their apps-yet-the assignment transformed their relationship with New York. They began to think about their cities as generators of information, and their roles as designers as almost like urban translators. "By starting out with raw, plain old data-just a list of trees and their coordinates, for example, or the recycling capture rate by neighborhood-the students were challenged to think about what the data really means," says Fahey. "How perhaps that data has some meaning inside of it waiting to be revealed through good user experience design. And how revealing meaning in data can change the city itself."

Clint Beharry created NY Loves U based on Richard Layard's Big Seven factors of happiness

As a culture, we seem to be obsessed with having a constant flow of information at our fingertips, from augmented reality applications to visualizations like GOOD's own Transparency infographic series. The field will continue to evolve as new technology will allow us to better integrate factors like behavior and location. But it's the designers' role to enrich the way we can respond to the data, and to each other, says Fahey. "I would love to see important data interpreted in more conversational ways, rather than just through data visualizations," he says. "Interaction, it is often said, is cognitively a form of conversation, between humans and machines, systems, and data."

Russell Maschmeyer's Hot Spot NYC merges information from NYC Data Mine to sites like Yelp; Gene Lu's New Green City lets residents see how their neighborhood ranks in overall sustainability

One example might be an exciting collaboration that was recently announced at the federal level: Expert Labs, a think tank filled with technologists, scientists and designers who will help citizens communicate with their government more effectively by developing tools that can easily track, collect and disseminate information between them. "This forces us to confront the question of what democracy is in a digitally-connected era," says Fahey. Maybe his students can take on that challenge next semester.

Eric St. Onge's Active NYC helps people find athletic facilities in their neighborhoods.

Thanks to SVA's MFA in Interaction Design program and the nine students from Fahey's class who passed along their concepts to GOOD.

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