Sense and sensors

Data Canvas, a worldwide project, harnesses design to transform data that people have collected about their city’s environment, into something that everybody can understand

November 06, 2015 06:07 pm | Updated 06:07 pm IST

Do you want to know how Namma Bengaluru fares in comparison with Boston, Singapore, Shanghai, Geneva and Rio de Janeiro in terms of pollution, light, air quality, noise, temperature and humidity? Visit National Gallery of Modern Art to see "Data Canvas: Sense Your City" organised by Swissnex India under the banner of Lift Conference. How citizens sense their environment is captured through innovative visualisations displayed at the venue.

Johann Recordon, Project Manager of Lift Conference, elaborates on the creation of the exhibition in an email interview.

What was the process like?

We decided to use an original design from an audio artist in San Francisco, who put different kinds of sensors into one casing which was a word feeder. We worked with a studio in China who produce electronic components. They took the original design, refined it, made it smaller to fit into smaller boxes. On the other hand, we had been running an open poll for citizens saying that Hey! We have citizen sensors and we are looking for people to install them in their homes, on their rooftops and connect to the wi-fi and send the data online. We had a selection process for the people who contacted us to recieve the sensors. We got the sensor kits from the studio and showed the people how to assemble it.

Then people put together their sensors and plugged them in. In Feb 2015, at the Lift Conference in Geneva, we formally announced the website where people could access the data online. The website is still running. Sensors are still streaming the data live. But for additional projects sensors have died. Components were not working anymore. It has almost been a year. People have moved to new places.

What were some of the interesting revelations about Bangalore?

This data is not perfect. The accuracy of data depends on various factors like where it is placed, and its quality. We got 14 sensors per city and that way we can only get an average, which is representative. Each artist/designer interpreted it in their own way. Nobody has cleaned the data. So it is all raw data that has been put into design.

Bangalore is the most polluted city among all the seven. It is also the dustiest city of them all. There are these questions about how is the road worked on. How can it be improved. I don't have a very good knowledge of India but being in Mumbai, I can see the difference between Mumbai roads and Bangalore roads. I can see why the dust is so high in Bangalore.

What kind of artistic interventions have taken place in this project?

We had more than 60 designers sending 30 projects out of which we selected 14 best projects. The designers' approach is visual. Some people have taken an analytical approach showing graph and comparisons between different cities. There is a project called 'city dots' that uses colour scale. Dots represent every hour of data allowing the viewer to make comparisons.

In 'Sonic Particles 2.0' from Denmark, which won the Lift Grand Prize, the artist translated the data into sound so you have a soundscape of the city. It makes you feel different emotions of the city.

Then there was 'Citycells' in which the poster is used as a QR code that iPad scans. The app recognises the poster and can thus pull the data accordingly. There are symbols, colours used here.

Are there strong narratives that emerge about a city through these data? Is the collated data going to be used for any further projects?

The data is not granular enough to be able to pull strong narratives for a city. It was one of our goals to hear stories behind the data. For instance there was an incident of a factory catching fire in Geneva. We saw the pollution peaking on our sensors because they were picking up the smoke from the fire.

One of the winning projects 'Urban Heartbeat' was co-relating the data of the sensors with the Twitter, Instagram data. So we had a couple of examples where we saw stories on the ground being co-related with the data. If we had granular data and a certain way we could embed people's comments, this would be a lot easier. It is a lesson for future projects.

Where has the exhibition travelled to and where does it go from here?

There is a permanent exhibition in San Francisco. It has already been exhibited in Shanghai, Beijing, Switzerland, now showing in Bangalore. We want to continue this discussion around quality of life and open data and sensing. If anybody is interested, we can do it. It mostly requires couple of prints to be printed on site and iPads to be installed and some scenography.

What is the whole idea behind the project?

We have three goals for this exhibition: One is to advocate open data because we believe data should be open especially government and private data that is being collected. The second is “data readability” : you need to transform this data into something that everybody can understand and that is where designers come into play.

Thirdly, encouraging people to learn more about their environment and data that is being collected and ask their governments and corporations to work with them to create a better environment.

To my knowledge there are just four government sensors in Bangalore so no real sensing of the city's quality of air is being done by the government and private companies.

One of the companies which attended the conference, KFX,, is going to deploy 50 sensors in Bangalore to solve this problem. We need higher engagement of people. They need to ask influential people to influence the policies of the government.

(The exhibition is on at NGMA, Bengaluru, till November 8).

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