"Re-humanizing urban data through design"

Central to the city of the future, for many of us data is a mysterious notion that arouses anxiety. But it can nevertheless be made to tell some great stories, explains Catherine Ramus, engineer and designer in the Human and Social Sciences Lab at Orange Labs.

Data is produced and incarnated by people; it prompts exchanges and creates links between people.

Orange is partnering the exhibition “Mutations Urbaines“, open until 5 March 2017 at the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie. How do you approach the issue of the “city of the future”?

What characterizes the city of the future is its power to produce data. Cities generate data, so our entry key is data. But for the general public, data is a mysterious notion that arouses anxiety. We don’t know who produces it, who processes it, what use is made of it. In fact, we don’t really know what it is. This exhibition gives us the opportunity to “re-humanize” data by making it tangible, sensorial, understandable and even, in a way, friendly. Clearly this is a data design process, falling somewhere between science, gaming, and poetry.

How do you transform urban data into a sensorial experience?

We present the research carried out in two projects: “movement footprint” and “SonaR”. The first is concerned with the movement of people in the public space, gathering the longitude and latitude data produced by their smartphones over a period of a few weeks. The individual geolocation data makes it possible to produce three-dimensional maps, which we call movement footprints. The footprint contour reveals the time spent by a person in a particular locality: the places frequented appear in the form of prominences of varying sizes – the areas rarely or never explored are detectable by the absence of contours.

How do people react when they see their own “footprint”?

We tracked the movements of some seventy people and presented them with their own footprints. What may seem incredible is that they quickly recognized themselves. In addition, they talked a lot between themselves – as was the case in the second experiment, “SonaR”. The aim here was to present the activity of mobile antennas using sound, either in real time or over a given period of time. The design gives events passing through the antennas a sound-based reality: texts sent and received, calls made and received, web data consumed. Thus, we can “hear” the city and raise awareness about the activity of an entire urban community, its ongoing exchanges, by inviting everyone to see themselves as stakeholders – living stakeholders – in this community.

Ultimately is the idea to de-dramatize the notion of the city of the future?

By choosing a narrative approach, by delivering landscapes of individual and collective presence, we want to show that the data that is accumulated and stored is produced by people, incarnated by people, prompts exchanges and creates links between people.

“Mutations Urbaines”, the exhibition
Demographic growth, an aging population, widespread use of data… cities are changing rapidly and present major challenges for the 21st century. With the support of Ademe, Orange and Suez, the exhibition “Mutations Urbaines. La ville est à nous!” at the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie until 5 March 2017, offers an urban walk that has three main sections – cities under pressure, urban land, and urban futures – which address the technological, human and symbolic aspects of the changes in cities.


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