On Sunday 11 March 2012 a group of designers and a digital journalist toured Cologne for an Urban Interface Safari ‘walkshop’ (in collaboration with Bottled City) to find, document and discuss interfaces in public space. You can retrace our tour via either this Flickr map or this Google map and see all of the photos here. Below is a summary of the findings and discussion. I’d like to thank everyone who took time to join, take photos and inform fresh thinking on how we can integrate public interfaces into our city to be more accessible, pleasant, unobtrusive and convenient : Martin Beyerle, Marcus Bösch, Andreas Echterhoff, Jan Güra, Katharina Schlösser and Jan Schröder.
The open data, low input, remote access future of public interfaces
Today our cities bristle with networks of cameras, sensors and displays we barely notice.The designers, planners and manufacturers of these public interfaces shape our experience of the city.
Cities and services project public, perception forming and long lived artefacts into the urban sphere. These organisations must make these interfaces effective for the citizens and customers who use and ultimately pay for these interfaces. For cities and services to fully serve the public we must design public interfaces for minimal user input, open data, clear information design and remote access via mobile devices
Release open data from public interfaces to citizens
Some public interfaces clearly display their functions – information displays, clocks and digital thermometers but many of the sensors are anonymous – perching quietly on walls and cornices. What data are they collecting? Where is the data going? Who is using it? How can we access it? Public sensors rarely declare their function – who uses the information from a sensor and how we can access it. Public sensors could have IP addresses attached to access their data via a mobile device- eg. one could access the atmospheric conditions for the corner one is standing on via the nearby wind speed and barometric pressure sensors.
Public interface APIs can also be made accessible via the internet for personal use and re-appropriation via services like Pachube.
CCTV cameras were a prominent feature of our walkshop with a taxonomy of sizes and shapes related to civic, corporate and private use. Some cameras attempted to camouflage themselves adopting the colouring of their surroundings.
Again there was no declaration of what data was being collected or how the public could access that data. Perhaps it is this lack of declaration of the use of CCTV surveillance which makes many of us so paranoid about its presence. To this extent CCTV permeates popular culture as a counter-culture icon from a music video composed of CCTV footage, to its presence in street art. Walkshoppers in London can look out for flying CCTV drones during the London Olympics this year..
Design public interfaces for minimal input and touchless interaction where possible
In the discussion following our walkshop some of us unexpectedly bonded over a shared fear of contagion through touching public interfaces from ATMs to transit, from the unpleasantness of an ATM on a Saturday night to commuters sneezing onto surfaces.
This fear of touching public objects was contrasted with an enthusiasm for touchless interfaces like Near Field Communication (NFC) which we saw at the central train station or even QR codes (despite their many poor deployments as highlighted on WTF QR Codes)
This desire for touchless interfaces makes sense in the urban context as seen in existing successful interfaces like motion and pressure sensors.
These interfaces ‘fade into the noise of the city’. The desire for touchless or gesture interfaces also calls into question the idea of large scale interactive outdoor public displays with the problems of ‘multiple inputs and potentially thousands of users sharing the same surface as observed by Sami Niemelä of Nordkapp.
A preferable model may be towards calmer, more ambient interfaces like the automation of flushing, taps and paper towels in public bathrooms as observed by Dan Saffer.
Provide clear information design for public displays and extend interfaces to mobile devices
Faced by a lonely and unloved public wifi kiosk complete with touch screen and web camera we discussed why such interfaces are not used. The conclusion was that as a public interface it adds no value to the user. The required functionality is already available in a more personal, private and hygienic form in a smartphone. There is no need to use public communication devices or even public wifi.
More value is added by interfaces like a NFC touchpoint via the mobile phone where the phone acts a ‘remote control’ for interacting with the city – ‘checking in’ on train journeys and car sharing services.
Although access to remote information like train times is greatly valued there is still a real need for clear prominent well designed public displays. When dashing through the station there is not the time nor co-ordination to start up a smartphone app and research the departure time and platform for the next fast train. Of course there is potential for more predictive design of such smartphone applications, sensing the context of use via location or an intimacy with the user’s daily routine and calendar.
As public interfaces permeate our cities and further inform our direct experience of the city care must be taken with their design, development and deployment. Public interfaces must be designed for minimal – preferably touchless – interaction, developed for open access to public data and deployed as clearly designed information systems extending their interfaces contextually to mobile devices.