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Urbanflow: A City's Information, Visualized In Real Time

Combining a map, tourist information, and data about the city’s services, a new system is making Helsinki truly transparent.

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According to Adam Greenfield, most public information systems aren’t very useful. He reckons a lot of kiosks you see in stations, plazas, and on sidewalks are expensive white elephants: a nice idea in some official’s mind, but not something that real people want to actually delve into on a consistent basis.

"Our research suggests that the overwhelming majority of these remain woefully underutilized, resulting in virtually no return on the significant investment involved in installing and maintaining them," he says, referring to his New York urban systems design practice, Urbanscale.

Greenfield’s firm has teamed up with another in Helsinki, called Nordkapp, to develop something better. The result is what they call Urbanflow, an information system that both tourists and local people might actually want to use.

Urbanflow provides layers of data: a way-finder allowing people to map A to B and find out about local services, and a mass of "ambient" city data on air quality, traffic density, parking, cycling, and public transport. Urbanflow is two-way: Users glean information, but also feed it back, for example reporting on, say, faulty streetlights or vandalism.

Sami Niemelä, Nordkapp’s creative director, says the system is not only designed to be useful, but also "playful," encouraging people to use it. He also wants to change behavior, making people more aware of their environment.

"We’re making the city more transparent to its people, displaying data and making people care more," he says. "I believe when you make the information more transparent it affects people’s behavior."

Helsinski, a city of about 590,000 people, currently has 20 non-interactive urban screens used mostly for advertising. The new system will probably become available later this year, on one side of the same terminal. Urbanscale is developing a variant of Urbanflow for Chicago.

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