Data Creates Art: Location Data Used for Colorado W3FI Art Project

May 4, 2017   

Posted by Tom McBrien

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Guest Blogger Tom McBrien shares his insights on the use of Skyhook's data in W3FI art project.

As daily life becomes increasingly integrated with the digital world, University of Denver Professor of Emergent Digital Practices Chris Coleman wants people to focus on how their digital journey interacts with the real world and the digital journeys of others.

His upcoming Colorado Springs “W3FI” art exhibition draws heavily on technology and Skyhook location data to communicate his messages about online interactions. The exhibit got it's name as a combination of "Wi-Fi", the word "we" and the slang use of the number 3 in place of the letter "E", Coleman uses the resulting "W3FI" to refer to the greater digital community. Coleman provides people the opportunity to consider big questions about their online lives in a magical space somewhere between the physical and digital worlds.

In the exhibit, viewers walk into a large room with walls covered in black vinyl. Plastic cubes interspersed around the room pulse based on flocking algorithms, while the walls and tables host projections of heat maps, Twitter feeds, and other visualizations representing digital aspects of the city hosting the exhibit. As visitors create, examine and interact with the data, they’re introduced to the philosophy of W3FI and are able to contemplate themselves and their city in unique ways.

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“What we love about it is that because you enter this physical space in your city that feels so digital — I really can’t stress enough how once all the walls come to life, it feels like you’re in this pseudo-digital space — we’ve created an environment where you can pause and be in between those two worlds simultaneously,” Coleman said. “It becomes a better way to have people consider the questions and think about who they are in these spaces in a way that going to a web page and learning about trolling or going to a classroom can’t replicate. We wanted to use art to create a magical moment in this in-between space.”

Coleman uses Skyhook geo-positioning data to visualize how internet-connected people move in, out, and through cities in one-hour increments over the course of a week. “There’s a spot on the wall where we do data visualization that we use the Skyhook data for,” Coleman said. “It’s about how people are using information in the city. It can be how different parts of the city have different kinds of access or how different kinds of people live in different parts of the city. It’s all hidden in the data that Skyhook provides. We really love using the Skyhook data because it gives a sense of the flow of people who are digitally engaged through the city over the course of a week. That can be pretty dramatic.”

Coleman explained the almost magical feeling of watching University of Boulder students flow to and from downtown Boulder on the weekends from a 2011 dataset, and how he’s interested in comparing that to a current data set after many tech companies have moved to the city.

This project stems from a realization Coleman and his collaborator, Professor Laleh Mehran, had around 2011 about how the digital world was changing. “When we made the piece, we were really thinking about people like ourselves who knew the world before the internet and were trying to reconcile the original vision of the internet, which was sort of a utopia where anyone could be anything, with now, when who you are online is actually more important to most of the world than who you are offline,” Coleman said.

To help people address this change, Coleman and his collaborators developed the idea of W3FI based on Buddhist ideas. First, visitors acknowledge that their digital personas are a real construct with implications for the real world. Then, they accept that everybody has a unique digital persona that’s equally important to them, so they must not to harm the digital personas of others. Finally, they understand how these digital personas interact to create a whole community rooted in both the physical and digital world: the W3FI.

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Coleman mentioned trolling, the importance of open-source software, and awareness of how people’s digital data is bought and sold by advertisers and other companies as concepts he hoped people would be inspired to consider through the experience.

The exhibition, which runs May 5 through June 24 in Colorado Springs, has been shown all over the world, including other cities in the US, Argentina, the UAE, and Taiwan. Coleman said as the project continues to develop and change, he’s not sure where it will end up. But with the ongoing importance of the digital world and with powerful tools like Skyhook’s data, there will be no limit to the interesting insights that Coleman and others can generate.

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Topics: geopositioning