These 6 Art Projects Make Urban Data More Accessible For The Rest Of Us

It turns out that air pollution and traffic jams make for some fascinating data-inspired art.

As big data in cities gets bigger, with growing numbers of sensors tracking everything from air pollution to traffic jams, the resulting piles of information aren’t necessarily easy for people living in those cities to access or use. In the Sense Your City Data Art Challenge, a partnership called Data Canvas asked designers to find creative ways to share data collected from DIY sensors in seven cities around the world.


“The dialogue now is between cities and big technology companies–there’s not really a voice for everyday citizens,” says Emina Reissinger from Swissnex San Francisco, which partnered with Grey Area and Lift to put on the challenge. “Even if you open data and put it all out there, you need to be kind of a data scientist to even work with these data sets–a normal person on the street doesn’t understand what open data is about and how they can get engaged. This is about making data that’s very abstract kind of tangible for the everyday person.”

Here are the six winning ideas.

Urban Heartbeat

“To state the obvious: Cities are for people, not machines, not data scientists, not corporations,” write the artists behind this website, which uses sound and visuals to give citizens a real-time snapshot of a neighborhood. A heartbeat represents noise levels, a layer of haze gets darker and greener as pollution gets worse, floating specks of dust represent particulate matter, and the brightness of the map represents the time of day.

It Feels Like

As you look up your local weather, this app tells you about another city that feels similar. On a summer day in Boston, for example, it might feel like September in London or December in Rio. The app pulls photos from Flickr as you learn a little about climate and geography.

Sonic Particles 2.0

Like Urban Heartbeat, this program plays with sound to share city data. Pick a city, and it adds new layers of sound representing the current light, humidity, pollution, dust, temperature, and noise, creating a composition that changes through the day. “With the sensitivity of the ear, it is possible to differentiate the data levels of each city just by listening to the evolving sounds,” write the developers.


Seeing The Air

Using the 100 air quality sensors set up by Data Canvas volunteers, Seeing the Air pulls pollution data every 10 seconds, and then builds 24-hour clocks that show when the smog is at its worst. The site also lets visitors see how a city compares to others, and how it’s scored on an air quality index. A set of filters makes it simple to compare rush-hour smog to other times of day or weekends.

Sensor Engine

In a single image, this tool shows 24 hours in a city: You can watch as the light changes, the haze of pollution spreads and shrinks, and temperatures and humidity rise and fall. A volume graphic in the corner shows how noisy the city is each hour.


This concept for a future weather app makes it as simple to find air quality data or noise levels as a temperature or a rain forecast. As you hover over a particular variable, you’ll see a forecast for the next day, along with a rainbow-colored heatmap that shows how data vary throughout the city.

Though some of the ideas are just concepts, others–like Urban Heartbeat and It Feels Like–won some cash and support for further development to make into full apps.


About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."