work /
Networked Urbanism
work
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.

GSDemo

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.

5. Researcher Portal

Lastly, the third leg of the stool: the product that researchers (Vetty employees) use to actually conduct the background checks.

Product principles:

  • Speed. Make tasks easily identifiable.
  • Efficiency. Focus on minimizing redundancy; at high volumes, every redundant action is magnified (even eye movement should be considered).
  • Memory management. The UI should work to minimize information that the user has to hold in memory.
  • Power users. Due to training, higher complexity in exchange for higher power is OK.

This is a basic researcher workflow. Note that it is divided into 3 stages:

Generally, teams of researchers are assigned to different accounts, with each member taking on a specific phase. Due to Vetty's limited resources, individual researchers take on their own accounts and conduct all 3 phases.

5.1. Researcher Dashboard

The main focus of the researcher dashboard is the "Adjudication Needed" column, which uses a simple "yes" or "no" to indicate when there is a pending task. Hovering over the cell in the column brings up more detailed information.

Because researchers are trained users, the dashboard can adopt more complexity for more power. Below, custom components that allow each column to be independently searchable:

5.2. Candidate Details

Much like the client portal (for account managers), the candidate details are where most of the tasks are done:

Key items:

  • The reference panel can be brought up at any time for glanceable information (for example, the researcher may need to compare SSN trace results with national criminal results). The panel eliminates the need to scroll back and forth. Furthermore, it includes a notes section for each candidate, eliminating the "mountain of sticky notes" that researchers previously had to deal with.
  • All top-level information is easily glanceable in the left navigation panel.

The researcher portal is now undergoing a major redesign to accommodate larger teams. Stay tuned!

Conclusion

Whew, that's it! A complete Consumer Reporting Agency platform from scratch. As of this writing, Vetty has experienced a 10x increase in MRR and is now undergoing a serious M&A bid. If you have any questions, or would like to work together, please don't hesitate to reach out at hello@scottliang.com.