What does big data tell us about the character of an iconic street? Created by data viz maestros Moritz Stefaner and Lev Manovich, On Broadway is an unprecedented visualization of social media data, which pulls in millions of updates from Instagram, Twitter, Foursquare, Google Street View, and more as a way of exploring the data that stacks up, almost like vertebrae, to translate the spine of Manhattan into a digital entity.
On Broadway was inspired by Every Building on Sunset Strip, a 1966 book by Edward Ruscha that unfolds to a 25-foot-long panorama of a 1.5-mile section of Sunset Boulevard. On Broadway takes that concept into the 21st century. By loading up the app in your web browser, you can explore the 13-mile section of Broadway that runs through the heart of Manhattan in various ways, from the average colors in the facades of Harlem to the average number of tweets per day in the Financial District.
According to project lead Lev Manovich, On Broadway is the latest in a series of experiments to leverage computers, the web, and massive data to represent our cities in new ways. “We wanted to avoid standard techniques like numbers, graphs, or maps,” he tells me, instead opting for “a visually rich image-centric interface with no maps and where numbers only play a secondary role.” The site represents Broadway as a vertical stack of image and data layers, as colorful and densely packed as one of the thousands of buildings in New York itself.
What’s most impressive about On Broadway is the fact that its interface holds up at all, given the massive data sets being thrown at it. To create On Broadway, the team pulled in 660,000 Instagram photos taken over a five-month period in 2014, as well as more than eight million Foursquare check-ins from 2009 to 2014, 22 million taxi pick-ups and drop-offs in 2013, countless Google Street View images and Twitter posts, and economic data from the U.S. Census Bureau. You explore each section of Broadway by clicking on a box representing its neighborhood at the bottom of the page, and On Broadway will even call out stats about individual buildings as you browse, like Monk’s from Seinfeld.
With so much data in play, there’s no one big takeaway from On Broadway. You might learn, for example, that Columbia University is comparatively underrepresented on Twitter, or that taxi pickups in Midtown outnumber those in Harlem by almost 30 to 1, or that the average facade colors are tones of brown or blue, but ultimately, Broadway is as vibrant and complicated as the city it streaks through. What you get from it is going to depend on what you’re looking for.
On Broadway is currently on display as an interactive touch-screen exhibition at the New York Public Library until January 3, 2016, but you can also explore it online here.