How We Could Build "Utopia" Based on Real-Time Location Data

Turns out checking out where we check in, on Foursquare or whatever, might be the key to designing all the cities of the Future Present.

Sep 12 2013, 4:35pm

When public transit isn't broken, it oftentimes gets us from Point A to B to C in the most assbackwards of roundabouts. This is in no small part thanks to slipshod urban planning. How can we revamp the ways we go about laying out our cities for work, play, and transport? Turns out checking out where we check in might give us some ideas.

Take Generating Utopia, a new visualization by designer Stefan Wagner. The idea was to illustrate what our habitats might look like if and when we're able to shape them to the rhythms of residents' social-locational data. In this case, it's the mid-sized German town of Würzburg. By pulling publicly available information tagged to Würzburg from Foursquare, OpenStreetMap, and Bayerische Vermessungsverwaltung, and straining it all through the Processing programming tool, Wagner gives us a real-time, interactive look at how some of its residents get to their jobs, or to wherever it is they let off steam or have fun or whatever.   

Those are the three groups you see whipping around—red (work), blue (recreation), and yellow (transport). And it's the height of the mountains, jutting up here and there, that tells us how frequently folks checked in at any one location; the higher the peak, the more frequently that spot is visited. But it's not all about the numbers: "When a specific area has many places with few checkins," Wagner writes, "the whole district will elevate, but it gets more disrupted than it would be with a single, 'big' checkin."

It's all a way to allow people to get a top-level gloss on these users' actions without having to put their mouths to the information firehose. As such, Wagner's focus here isn't so much on fine-grained mapping of given data sets, but rather on creating images that let individual interpreations and imaginations fly. 

Wagner took cues from utopian urban planning projects since the 1920s, and also from 20th Century sci-fi concept art. So "the colorful growing tubes are not further defined," he explains, and yet they may "hint at how transportation might look like in a utopian future":

[T]hey might be light rails for self-driving vehicles, or Futurama-like tubes for transporting people with air pressure–the interpretation is up to the viewer. Basically, they are the visual representation of a virtual web the user has drawn in the city with the data he left.

It might be a bit of a stretch, but I like to think I see where he's going with it. Because even if this feels more dystopic than Utopia for you, it still looks pretty rad, no?