While the typical infographic might be a slick Illustrator-drawn chart on a website, it turns out that chalk on a sidewalk can work just as well: Researchers in Cambridge, England, used hand-stenciled graphics to map out attitudes in a neighborhood and get neighbors talking to each other.
“We chose to make use of the existing urban environment to reveal data about that the perceptions held by people in that same environment,” says Lisa Koeman, a student at University College London, who worked on the project with Vaiva Kalnikaite and Yvonne Rogers as part of the university’s Intel Collaborative Research Institute. “By situating the visualizations on the doorstep of the shops where it was collected, passersby can immediately make these links.”
Socially, the neighborhood is split in two parts. When a railway line was built in Cambridge in the 1800s, it divided the town; one side of the tracks was developed by the university, and the other side became housing for railway workers. Nearly 200 years later, there’s still a wrong side of the tracks, at least for some residents.
“People explicitly told us things like ‘I rarely go to the other side of the bridge,’” says Koeman. “Seeing as crossing the railway bridge only takes you about two minutes, from an outsider’s point of view, this divide is mind-boggling. We were keen to find out if we could get the Mill Road community to discuss the differences they perceive divide the street.”
The researchers put simple voting machines in local shops, asking questions about the neighborhood while people waited in line to buy coffee or groceries. Every two days, they gathered the votes, and sketched out the results on the sidewalk in front of each store in chalk. “By revealing the data on the pavement, we managed to make the visualization eye-catching: people would stop and try to figure out what was shown,” Koeman explains.
Since the researchers wanted to reach as many people as possible—including people who might not have come to a community meeting or visited a website online—the sidewalk was the ideal medium. As people stopped to look, they also started talking.
"Our aim was not only motivating individuals to reflect on their own and other people’s perceptions—we also wanted to get people talking about the different issues relating to Mill Road," Koeman says. "By displaying the data in the public environment, it acted as a talking point. We observed people sharing anecdotes and opinions."
The project even inadvertently got some residents to walk places they wouldn't usually go. "It became apparent that multiple people had walked from shop to shop to compare the results," Koeman explains. "So the visualizations managed to encourage some people to cross the railway bridge."
The team plans to try a similar combination of simple technology and public visualizations in other neighborhoods.