The architecture of data-rich public spaces

I looked out the window this morning and was greeted by a six-story-high image of George Bush. I was in Times Square, on the 19th floor of a hotel, facing the brobdingnagian information display that ascends and wraps around the Reuters building. Movies like Blade Runner conditioned us to expect these displays. Minority Report updated the concept with aggressive personalization. But the Reuters display is about something different, and far more interesting, than the advertising techniques imagined in those movies. Its designer, ESI's Edwin Schlossberg (yes, that Edwin Schlossberg), has profound ideas about public information display as a focus for interaction. From Wired 10.12:

Schlossberg's next big thing is the Reuters News Index, an addition to the sign that debuts in 2003. Roughly every hour, a 304-foot thermometer will appear onscreen measuring how "hot" the news day is on a scale of zero to ten. Schlossberg hopes it will inspire people on the street to turn to each other and say, "Did you see that? The News Index just shot up to 6 degrees -- what have you heard?"

The Index is calculated using Satran's Algorithm - developed by Reuters and R/GA, and named for veteran Reuters editor Dick Satran. Every 15 minutes, the formula crunches four data points: the total volume of stories filed from Reuters' 200 offices in 97 countries; the number of priority one and priority two stories filed (editors assign a priority code to each report coming off the Reuters wires); and the total number of hits logged in the previous 15 minutes. At one early meeting with Reuters editors, ESI design manager Gideon D'Arcangelo recalls, "one of them said that if we really wanted to make the index true to life, we ought to factor in the blood pressure of Reuters editors, too." [ Wired]

Innovative data-enrichment of public space can be applied in all sorts of practical ways. In November I reviewed Delta's gate information display. In an ingenious and remarkable use of IT, these displays project formerly inaccessible data (e.g., number of seats available) into the boarding area. In so doing, they modify the environment, for example by lowering the blood pressure of the business traveler who arrived late and is waiting in line.

In December I attended a meeting where, as Clay Shirky describes, a chat augmenting the face-to-face discussion was projected onto a large screen in the room. Among the effects noted by Clay, this display changed the "interrupt logic" because people could queue up questions and comments.

At that same meeting, Ben Hammersley described a server-monitoring application that translated log activity into birdsong. At normal levels of intensity, it was just pleasant background noise. But when the birds started to sound more excited, Ben reported, people knew that activity was ramping up. In a world of increasing visual overload, this recruitment of the audio channel -- to which we can attend subconsciously -- makes a lot of sense.

There are powerful feedback loops at work here. We saturate our environment with data; we react to that data; our reactions modify the data-rich environment. At the rate things are going, the word "architecture" may yet be restored to its original meaning!

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