Thursday, February 7

New media work shows traffic, but not it's impact

As well as recycling code as a way to teach programming, Steph Thirion recently finished Cascade on Wheels, a data vis project attempting to translate abstract traffic stats into a more meaningful, compelling interactive. Beautifully realised in Processing, Cascade extrudes upwards, creating something akin to a spatial bar graph over Madrid - the higher the wall, the more traffic on that street. Responsive and navigable, the user is able to pan, zoom, and explore this new environment of data easily. The problem is, Cascade stops there, failing to make any statement about how, for instance, the 100,000 vehicles per day on El Prado street impacts residents, the environment, and the urban fabric.

Thirion (and the rest of the team) seemed to realise this, and came up with a second vis based on the same data, Traffix Mixer. A sound toy, where "emotion was given prominence over direct readability", Mixer does provide a nice complement to the more strictly infographic Cascade. But unfortunately, the innovative, slick interface compromises the power of the work. " Ah, i forgot how pleasant it sounds... nice to hear it again.", is one comment on the video blog. The sound of a speeding car coming up behind you - as any pedestrian or cyclist can attest- is always unnerving and ominous. Mixers sound, while aggressive, is too abstracted from its subject matter, sounding more like a track from a laptop/glitch artist.

Traffic expands like a virus. The amount of vehicles will always expand to the amount of roadway available. Its effects are also viral and ever expanding. In a landmark study in 1981, Dr. Donald Appleyard demonstrated a direct correlation between the number of friends people have on a street, and the amount of cars travelling on a given street. Even more interestingly, when asked to define their "home area", residents on Appleyard's "Low Traffic" road circled the whole street: their house, the front yards, the footpaths, and even their friends houses. With growing traffic comes growing impact, and a growing retreat. Children on the street stop playing. Adults on the footpath stop conversations. Hanging out in front yards ceases, decks stop being used, and finally in extreme situations, the front room of the house is unused, permeated with traffic noise, horns, and pollution. Traffic Mixer and Cascade on Wheels, while stunningly executed, fail to convey the impact of their subject - either quantitatively or qualitatively.

1 comment:

frey said...

this is interesting. i was at Medialab Prado, at Visualizar, where this project was created and executed.

the initial idea behind the project was actually this thing that you claim is lacking, namely a desire to illustrate the direct effects of traffic on the neighbours. while i agree with you that it didn't achieve this goal, it was an interesting process watching this initial starting point, trying to create an emotional affect from data, become bogged down in the details of obtaining the data and then translating it into anything at all, let alone something effective, in two weeks, with a group of people who were almost all complete strangers before the start of the project :-)

nice one..