Watch for how Chicago’s new “Array of Things” signs communicate information

Big data about Chicago is to be communicated to the public in a few different ways, including from public signs:

But the information it gathers is only half of what the Array of Things does. It will communicate that data in a complete, machine-readable form online, for users to search, analyze, and adapt. The sensors, however, will also communicate the data to passers-by.And that presents an interesting design dilemma. Most public signage seems self-evident and intuitive, like stop signs and walk signals, but it tends not to change very much, and when it does, it’s iterative. What do you do when you’re designing a new form of public signage, on the cheap, and one that has the possibility to communicate a wide range of information? To find out, I spoke with the array’s designers, SAIC professor Douglas Pancoast and master’s student Satya Batsu.

The obvious approach would be to use a screen. But screens are fragile and expensive. “We knew we didn’t want to have screens,” says Pancoast. “We wanted it to be visible—it couldn’t be too small, it couldn’t be too big, and you couldn’t mistake it for traffic.”…

That also led the designers to the current design of the Array nodes. (Not final, necessarily—the 3D-printed screens are cheap, quickly produced, and replaceable in a few minutes with off-the-shelf hardware.) The hexagonal shape of the lights in a honeycomb pattern is meant to further distinguish the Array nodes from traffic signals—a simple, familiar shape that’s still different from the language of signage that will surround it on city streets…

From that, Pancoast and Batsu narrowed down the nodes to their current iteration, leaving open the question of what information they’ll communicate and how people will recognize it. And that’s where the community comes in. The Array of Things is “neighborhood asset mapping,” in Pancoast’s words; residents are likely to be interested in different data in different places. In one place, they might be interested in air quality, an “asymmetrical” issue across the city. In another, sound or temperature.

This could present some interesting opportunities for observation to see how residents will interact with these public signs. Will they stand around them? Glance at them quickly as they walk by? Ignore them? I’m curious to know what information these signs could provide on a regular basis that would be better than what residents could gather on their smartphones or that would add value to their daily routine.

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