INDIVIDUAL PROJECT - SPRING 2019 ROLE: Designer, Research, Technologist
Case Study: Roaming View
How does satellite data and its resulting maps inform a perspective of the city that is extractive and inflexible?
Research ApproachAs a Western designer doing research in the Global South, there were two huge pitfalls I was consciously trying to avoid as I conducted field research:
- The designer think they are doing good by bringing some Western “new technology” to the Global South, but instead is disrespecting local forms of knowledge and technology.
- In engaging the people and the city, the designer ends up extracting value for their own ends, but returns no value in exchange for the labor and time of those local residents.
Both of these outcomes reflect an inherently colonial approach that designers can often take as a default. Given my limited capacity to build meaningful relationships within the time frame of the project, I took an auto-ethnography approach, focusing on my own relationship to technologies while in Mexico City.
ImmersionThe process of immersing myself in Mexico City involved visiting many sites that highlight the different scales of Mexico City: from Biblioteca Vasconcelos and Basilica de Guadalupe, to Pasteleria Ideal.
At each of these sites, I designed a different way to document my research, focusing on how the process of documentation itself reveals different points-of-view. Rather than viewing myself as an objective observer, I was awknowledging my own bias in observation.
I used a camera for most of my documentation. Some strategies I tried included:
- Building physical filters as a way to focus the images I was taking
- Setting my camera to timelapse mode, so I couldn’t choose exactly what pictures were being taken
- Covered the camera in bright yellow to make the camera more obvious, and more conspicious
- Putting up a yellow tarp as a frame for an image.
Some of these little design experiments were more successful that others, but I learned a lot by just trying things out in the field.
Back in the design studio for a week, I started to make sense of my documentation, trying to find some sort of spark or insight that might focus my research.
From the journeys traveling between various sites, getting food, and exploring Mexico City, I noticed how places that we might find on services like Yelp had closed months earlier, and how other places weren’t indexed at all on those same services.
Insight: Technologies like satellite view maps and google street view can’t capture the highly contingent and ever changing nature of Mexico City.
Making as ThinkingUsing this insight as a starting point, I started to prototype devices that could help me explore what it meant to understand and know a city that doesn’t make itself legible to photographic technologies like satellite view maps or google street view cars.
Prototype 1I started by inverting the satellite view that these services typically rely on, prototyping a device that would collect image data on the ground, from an ankle perspective.
Each of the following prototypes helped me think through these ideas of place making, universalism, and other ways of knowing.
Prototype 2, In Context
The second prototype was built entirely in Mexico City, and involved an extensive exploration of the city in order to aquire all the necessary materials. The onboard camera takes a picture with every step you take.
The project started to take a “meta” quality as I tried to aquire electronics materials using Yelp and Google Maps as my guides. I visited at least 6 different locations in seach of a single screw.
Using the collected data, I created timelapses of my journeys collecting electronics in various parts of Mexico City.
Prototype 3With the next version, I decided to modify shoes I aquired in a street market in the city. I started to document my journeys collecting materials through an imagined google maps instructions.
With this version of the device, I worked with a local cobbler in order to modify the shoes to embedd the electronics within.
One way to think about the Roaming View Shoes is as a tool to facilitate further design research.
Throughout this project, I was the only one wearing and using the shoes and collecting data. The resulting maps represent my experiences through the city. But I can imagine doing workshops to build more of these devices, and then have people record their movements through space.
Just as the building the device prompted my own reflections on the role of technology in navigations and making sense of the city, it could do the same for others, creating conversations on how different people embody their understanding of their neighborhoods.