The Urban Research Toolkit (URT)

After reading Shannon Mattern’s article, I was interested in her “Urban Research Toolkit”. It is interesting that Mattern stated in his website that “As with most digital projects, this one proved very difficult to preserve.” However, it looks like its outcomes allowed her to create a syllabus on “Urban Media Archeology” where students designed several prototypes.

The Urban Research Toolkit (URT) was an open-source, online mapping platform that offered a new research approach in the humanities, social sciences, and design. Conceived as a tool for education, it considered important the dissemination of a “culture technique” of researching the urban space. More specifically the project developed an interactive map of New York’s historical media infrastructures like telegraphs lines, pneumatic tubes, and telephone networks. Their intention was to demonstrate how those material media landscapes have evolved over the course of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries.

A team of designers and programmers at XYZlab at Parsons the New School for Design created the toolkit. This lab focuses on the “collaborative development of participatory design tools for urban research, social networking, community participation and non-linear storytelling”. Their focus on collaboration was central to the project as the interface was conceived not only for displaying information but also to be “ an ideal toolkit for researching, visualizing information and analyzing a range of content.”

The group presented the project in the mobility shifts conference at the New School University in 2011. In a panel on urban mobility and research, they presented the URT as “being developed to maximize the benefit of two primary interfaces – web and mobile“. As a result, they could visualize how contemporaneous networks overlap, complement, or compete with one another.

The success of this project could be contradictory. Even tough there are few traces of its existence (at least on the internet) the theoretical framework has been projected in more than 30 projects developed in the Urban Media Archeology class. As the original project wanted to put the URT both inside and outside the classroom, the original goal was to create thematic layers for project of mapping archival documents or sensing data flows to visualizing urban narratives. As I state before, this goal was achieved through the Urban Media Archeology class. Especially, because the use of available platforms, which ranged from a quilted map to a hand-dissected map to an audio map, allowed to extend the idea to process of prototyping. For that reason, the research was more concerned with the ideas behind the project than with its execution.

I believe that such approaches to interfaces, not only contribute but also open a discussion on how to present results that put theory into the construction of objects. I wonder how the process of research, comparing the original project with is repetition in a class context, also speaks of the time involved in theory production, especially in its continuous and patient labor. Although, The research for each project was constructed and documented in the case of the Urban Media Archeology courses, there are no clear traces of how the students have expanded this work. However, it also demonstrates how theory making can move from one platform to another and, as the process of designing URT, how it emerged from the work of humanist and designers.

One of the Urban Media Archeology projects is “The new bohemia” which seeks to visualize the growth and decay of artist communities in Williamsburg through historical three layers,(1982, 1992 and 2012