24 June 2014

Ouput Award 2014.
Grand Prix

Stefan Wagner: Generating Utopia

FH Würzburg-Schweinfurt, 2013


With its international competition the Output foundation is searching for young talents in different areas of design. Each year, up to 1,000 students from more than 30 countries submit their best work. New this year: In addition to the grand prize, an audience prize will also be awarded. Before the end of August, you can go to our website (form.de/en/output-audience-award) to select your favourite out of the ten distinctions. The jury has already awarded Stefan Wagner (Würzburg-Schweinfurt University of Applied Sciences) with the Grand Prix for his submission “Generating Utopia”, a real-time visualization of location-based data from the social network Foursquare. The physical dimensions of the user data (“utopias”, because everyone presents themselves as they would like to be seen) are translated into topological transformations of the users’ whereabouts, thus making the users’ behaviour an interactive experience.


“Human use shapes the landscape. Trails become roads, first settlements cities, density and elevation indicate centres. But virtual hustle and bustle leaves behind almost no real traces. The project “Generating Utopia” shows us the vibrant chaos of real-time commu- nication and the fun of observing the individual use of one‘s own environment.” Kora Kimpel


1. How did you go about collating the data for your project?


I worked with two different kinds of data sets. One comprised social, location-based data. At first, I used the dynamic data that I had been collating myself for several months. I used my profile on the social network Foursquare as a data source, and derived the first use cases from these data. I asked myself what made interesting reading from the Foursquare data, and what stories could I tell with it?  

The next step was to gather data from other people. I got these from my acquaintances, who provided a sufficiently diverse data set to represent different dynamic profiles.

In addition, I used data sets from real cities, such as satellite maps and building outlines. My aim was to set out the data underlying the transformation into a “utopia”, but also to visualise the city as completely as possible using open-source data sets, without having to manually create 3D models. Data sources for this step included openstreetmap.org.

Using this approach, it is possible in theory to visualise every possible town. The data for real towns can be sourced from open-source data on the internet, while the transformation stage requires only the Foursquare data from users who were travelling within the town in question. Every other conceivable kind of location-based data can also be visualised.


Generating Utopia from Stefan Wagner on Vimeo.


2. Does your app claim to represent reality? How do you address the fact that we always tailor our social media behaviour in order to present ourselves in a certain way?


The aim of the project was to establish a clear link between reality, the precise topology of a city and the user’s “version” of it, which adapts dynamically to the behaviour of its residents. The real city should be recognisable from the visualisation, on the one hand, so that the viewer can perceive its transformation into a utopia, and so that he or she can compare the representation with their own view and their own movement behaviour, on the other.

The fact that we tend to present our best side on social networks is recognisable in the way in which there are no perceptible qualitative differences between the transformed places within the city – apart from height and the number of check-ins listed, every place is the same. If there were “bad” or undesirable areas, you could choose a different form of representation, for instance by creating dips – i.e. altering the depth.

Generating Utopia differentiates only between places that are interesting, less interesting or uninteresting according to the visualised user profile. Places at which the user has never checked in are left as they are in reality, but interesting places are elevated.

I have left this elevation open to interpretation. Some viewers have seen the visualisation as very dystopian, as places with a higher number of check-ins, such as workplaces, look very lonely due to their height, as though there were nothing more important in the city than one’s job. I purposely incorporated this openness to interpretation, which varies according to the visualised profile and the user, as a utopia always emerges in a person’s mind first of all.


3. How might a real, non-digital visualisation of your results look within a public space?


I’ve been thinking a lot about the possibilities of transferring Generating Utopia to an actual space. As a test, I printed a 3D version of a part of the transformed city at Shapeways, and found that the tangible aspects of this coding of height data were highly adaptable and tactile. A moving representation within space could have been achieved using hydraulic pins, their upper side fixed to the printed city map, allowing the model to demonstrate the transformation of the city with upward and downward movements.

However, the results of the visualisation of the data could be demonstrated just as effectively within real space, showing the interesting places using lights or projections “illuminating” the corresponding buildings. If we wanted to take it even further and disregard technical effort and financial expense, it would also be possible to fly a drone over the places visited by users and place lines of connection in the real space using paints (water-soluble, naturally) or threads. But that would mean that the utopia starts from a basis of complete creative freedom.


Nº 283
The Power of Design

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