This is an Urbanscale Weeknote titled “Week 29: “Talk To Me” edition,” written by Adam Greenfield in New York on the 24th of July 2011.

Week 29: “Talk To Me” edition

Adam Greenfield on 24 July 2011

An epochal week in the studio, in quite a few ways.

  • Firstly, please congratulate our Mayo Nissen on the approval of his H1B visa, which, as you can well imagine, comes as quite a relief to all concerned. He’ll formally and officially start working from New York on 1st October, bringing his nomad wanderings to an end. We’re really grateful for the time he’s spent onsite at Nordkapp, helping shepherd the Urbanflow Helsinki video into being, but it’ll be great to have all of us physically present in the studio together for the first time.
  • If you can believe it, though, that approval was just the icing on Mayo’s week: he actually has two pieces in the Museum of Modern Art’s latest mega-show “Talk To Me”: City Tickets in both NYC and Copenhagen manifestations, as well as an earlier solo work of his visualizing household power consumption.


We’re way beyond proud to finally be able to plant our humble flag alongside more established (and deeply-admired) peers like Stamen, BERG, Area/Code, Usman Haque, and Superflux. But still more important is our sense that “Talk To Me” marks a generational coming-of-age in interaction design.

Those of us who’ve pursued this conversation through blog posts, pamphlets, provocations and prototypes over the past decade or so may still nurture some vision of ourselves as lean and hungry guerrillas; I surely do, myself. But “Talk To Me” makes it clear that in some pivotal way we’ve collectively come down out of the Sierra Maestra and become the establishment — with all that implies about responsibility, as well as the inevitably of being overthrown by the next generation’s contenders. It’s both a heady moment, then, and a fraught one.

For now: our heartfelt and fervent congratulations to all the brilliant people whose work animates “Talk To Me,” and has done so very much to push both the discourse and the practice of interaction design further down the field. You set a very high standard for us to aspire to… and high expectations are the kind we like best.

  • J.D. is busily working on Project LAFAYETTE — both the guts of a standalone iOS application called Transitflow we aim to launch later on this year, and the beginnings of the framework that will furnish Urbanflow with its transmobility functionality — and has completed work on an initial web service prototype.

We intend for Transitflow to be a different kind of interactive, real-time transit application. Our aim with it is to take a step beyond generic journey-planning and timetable apps, and offer people something that will reduce or eliminate the kind of experiential hassles the current generation of interactive services does very little to address. We want you to know when you have to leave the place you’re in to catch a specified bus or train, we want to get you to the stop or station on time (but not so early that you have an uncomfortable wait), and we want to notify you, on an extended journey, when your destination is approaching and it’s time to get off. And we want to convey all of this information to you gently, in natural language, in a way that circumvents the stress so often associated with getting around in a big city.

In order to do this, LAFAYETTE leverages a couple of discrete orders of information. In an ideal case, it would start by comparing your current location [derived from A-GPS] to the known locations of transit stops [open municipal or transit-agency data, in GTFS format] and rolling stock [ditto]. Because the application “knows” [device accelerometer] how fast you walk, as well as [again, A-GPS] whether or not there’s a significant deviation from ground plane that would affect travel time, it can tell you that you’re a seven-minute walk from the bus stop. Because it “knows” where the bus is and [real-time traffic] approximately how fast that bus is moving, it can tell you the bus is nine minutes away. From a comparison of these two facts, it can notify you a minute from now that you’d better gather your things and go — sooner if you like a little buffer (especially if it’s 1 AM and the bus only comes once an hour), and later if you’re the kind that likes living on the edge.

Since we know, though, that the ideal case will not always obtain, we also want to figure out how to give you best possible approximations to these values when you’re offline, traveling in a strange city, lack connectivity or a data plan, or otherwise can’t get at the real-time information.

My original inspiration for this line of thinking was Paul Hammond’s 2008 Minimuni, which combined (in this case, static) location awareness with (timetable-based) transit data and a natural-language interface, with a payoff of his “getting to work earlier and a lot less stressed.” Inevitably, too, as novel as one always likes to believe one is, our research has turned up a couple of clear, if partial, precedents in the work of Jeni Paay and Jesper Kjeldskov, a 2009 paper describing a prototype service called TimeToGo, and most robustly, a live service for Washington DC called How’s Metro, available in family-friendly and NSFW versions.

We think we can push past all of these forerunners, though. LAFAYETTE will at least demonstrate the kind of benevolently intercessionary measures that become possible when we can not merely take advantage of open municipal and transit-agency data, but compare this information to that generated by the device’s own onboard sensors. Because we know we can get access to all the data sources we need there, we’re looking at building Transitflow Chicago first, but more instantiations will assuredly come.

  • Jeff’s still digesting his impressions of the Ford Foundation’s symposium on the Just City he attended last week, and applying these findings to his work on JANE; meanwhile, I’m in Korea, where I’m visiting Nurri at her summerlong residency at the Gyeonggi Creation Center and helping her run a walkshop in Ansan. (We’ll post more about that latter on the Do projects site later on today.)
  • Next week we’ll meet with the GROUNDlab crew and push forward with Phase II of our work on the PERRY prototype, which is intended to arrive at a truly “looks-like, works-like” testbed, and we’ll also hopefully manage to post a few notes about our experience teaching at CIID.

Finally, briefly: I’ve been free of Nokia a year next Monday. The time has just evaporated, and it’s almost impossible for me to remember now what the load of frustration and jawgrinding tension I used to carry around with me felt like. I feel like we’ve gotten an enormous amount of work done in just the last six months, and laid the groundwork for much, much more, every little bit of it personally gratifying, deeply fulfilling. So my advice to anyone in anything remotely resembling the situation I found myself in would have to be: pull the ripcord. Get out now. There’s so much to gain and — in the best possible way — everything to lose. See you next week.