During the Grand Depart, thousands of journalists stay at Dutch hotels. Many of them find a 'Bedtime Story' on their pillow. In this third chapter, you'll learn more about cycling through data science.
Insights are not gained from the desk alone;
everyone adds up to what is known
With cyclists all over the city map
what data shall we gather
to close the final gap?
In 2012, the well-praised Dutch television program ‘Nederland van boven’ (The Netherlands from above) mapped the city of Utrecht from a bird’s eye perspective. With the useof stunning aerial shots combined with powerful data visualizations, they managed to beautifully depict the growth of Utrecht during the last decade.
Imagine yourself floating above the city in the same manner. What would you see? Would it unveil complex patterns of streets and rivers entwining in an architectural ballet, landmarks of ancient and modern-day Utrecht lead and follow one another? Would you sense the rhythmic movement of traffic, pulsating through these urban veins? Would it perhaps even depict itself as a neural network, a vast infrastructural collective in which everyone plays part?
I welcome you to the third chapter of our story.
Hopefully you have had a pleasant stay so far. Yesterday I told you about Happy Biking, in which the whole city got involved in solving the main frustrations that cyclists experienced. Tonight, let’s pick up on this approach; how would you actively involve everyone in doing research?
Not far outside the city of Utrecht lies a town called De Bilt. Here, the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI) is housed. The primary tasks of KNMI are weather forecasting and monitoring climate changes. However, it also partakes in new collaborations more often, sharing and implementing its knowledge and methods into current urgent social issues. One of these issues is concerned with the air quality in Utrecht. Over the last few years, much has been done to increase Utrecht’s air quality. The results cannot be overlooked; Utrecht has increasingly become a healthier city, in which traveling by bike is favored more often, while co2 emissions are reduced. To keep track of the progress made, KNMI plays an important part, working together with the city government and University College Utrecht.
In this story, the villain is portrayed by nitrogen dioxide (NO2), one of the most feared enemies to a healthy air quality. Among other components, it is associated with acid rain. To measure air quality, it is therefore important to measure the levels of NO2. KNMI previously only attached measuring instruments to weather balloons. However, this did not accurately capture the air quality on street level. To get more and better readings, the bike –again– started playing its part.
KNMI makes use of what has been called ‘citizen science’ or ‘crowd science’. In this public participation in scientific research, amateur scientists are deployed to collect data or try out new methods. In the ongoing project City Sonde, measuring instruments for NO2 are combined with GPS modules and attached on the bikes of ordinary citizens. This allows a high number of accurate readings for Utrecht’s most popular cycling routes. Combining these readings with other data sets, the effect of new measures and policies can be evaluated instantly.
With City Sonde –bike-sized laboratories–, citizens are ‘mapping’ their own habitat, while simultaneously feel more involved in current research into their environment. The idea of the city as a single neural network now becomes easier to grasp, doesn’t it?
Not only the meteorological data is of interest here. GPS data contains a lot of value in itself. In the ongoing project BikePrint from the NHTV, GPS data of bicycle movements anticipates the need for knowledge of policymakers. Mapping cyclists’ behavior, it instantly shows where infrastructural changes are needed most.
Imagine cycling through Utrecht with your very own City Sonde, collecting and transferring data as you go. Wouldn’t it be interesting to fully experience all the data that has been collected so far? Meet the Utrecht-based medialabs SETUP and Rotslab. Together, they’ve recently proposed ‘Audible Data Journalism’. In this new take on data journalism, location-based and open data sets are translated into audible experiences. In other words, while cycling through the city you can actually ‘hear’ the data streaming in abstract soundscapes. It stimulates a more human experience of raw data. For example, can you imagine what bad air quality would sound like?
During this Grand Départ, you might run into actual City Sondes; they’re cycling through Utrecht as we speak. But now, it’s time for you to stop pedaling, and lay your head to rest. Tomorrow, I will tell you about exciting bike projects that celebrate playfulness. Also, we’re near an answer to our initial question; does the bike determine the success of our future cities?
Good night and sleep well.