work /
Networked Urbanism
landscape architecture
urban design
ux design

Uncovering the subjective experiences of city life.

context /

Harvard Graduate School of Design - 2013

team /

Thomas McCourt

Benjamin Scheerbarth

Scott Liang

The Premise

Networked Urbanism was my first Urban Planning studio and the birthplace of Place Pixel, later to become Place Pixel Inc.

Inspired by ideas from the Situationist movement from the 1950s–70s, my teammates Thomas McCourt (TJ), Benjamin Scheerbarth (Ben), and I conceptualized an application for understanding the subjective, emotional experiences of city life. Below is our winning entry to the Architecture Boston 5x5x5 competition. It demonstrates early ideas and implementations, but the motivations presented remain strong.


Physical planning and urban design decisions are increasingly guided by the patterns expressed through massive amounts of networked data. As a driving force, the smart city paradigm seeks to revolutionize the way we collect, quantify, and analyze this data, allowing for a depth of insight and degree of responsiveness that would have seemed impossible just a few years ago. Preoccupation with objective information, however, will yield models that are inadequate representations of the true urban condition—a condition largely defined by what one might call the first two meters of a city, the human layer. In order to achieve the next level of fidelity, a social variation on the smart city must incorporate the systematic collection and analysis of subjective impressions and emotive responses to the built environment.

Understanding the "first two meters"—the subjective experience

One of the core tenants of the Networked Urbanism studio, adeptly run by Belinda Tato and Jose Luis Vallejo, was the act of networking with potential advisors, collaborators, and stakeholders. Below is a timeline of how how our ideas and implementations evolved as we engaged the community.


Another core tenant of the studio was that of testing our ideas as frequently as possible. As a result, we devised an analog method of gauging the subjective experiences of people in our university building, Gund Hall (we called it "GSDemo"). We placed survey posters in each of Gund's many environments, then tallied the results to see if we could extract any meaningful insights.

Our posters all over Gund Hall

Distributions of positive and negative sentiments among Gund's work areas

Sentiments mapped onto a 3D model

Very clear shifts in experience throughout the building

In addition to being a great deal of fun, GSDemo yielded a number of interesting findings—from more obvious correlations between sentiment and amounts of traffic (negative) and sunlight (positive, to a certain extent), to more surprising ones, such as dips in positivity due to a batch of desks that caught and damaged clothing. The results were sent to administration for further review.

The App

Having an idea for an app is one thing, but as I learned through this process, making one is entirely another! Coming from an architecture & landscape architecture background, many of the patterns and best practices of UX, UI, and visual design were foreign to me. It actually took a while to realize what I didn't know, and quite a while longer to develop the requisite skills. Here are the first passes at the Place Pixel app (check out Gabbermap to see the fully realized product).

Easily upvote or downvote areas of the city

Grid aggregation when zooming out

Interviewing folks around campus

The first user flow diagram

In order to build a working prototype, I had to learn JavaScript, NodeJS, MongoDB, HTML, and CSS from scratch. It was incredibly confusing at first, but many folks learning to code speak of an inflection point—a moment when things start to click and you're able to write what you want without having to refer to documentation. I present to you: a crude (yet working!) Pixel Map.

Mmmm spaghetti

Place Pixel Inc.

Little did I know that Place Pixel would take me far, far beyond a simple studio project. In an unlikely series of events, fueled by an unwavering insistence that it be made real, I shepherded it from the academic realm to the Harvard Innovation Lab, to the Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator, to an eventual $1MM raise for Place Pixel Inc. Below is the fully realized (and consumer-ified) version: Gabbermap.