Life and Death in the Built Environment: A Data Through Design exhibit


By James Proctor, Lead, Pitch Interactive

In 2014, in response to a national rise in traffic fatalities, many cities in the United States began to implement programs to reduce injuries and deaths in their transportation systems. At the beginning of his first term, Bill de Blasio introduced Vision Zero to New York City, bringing the project from the purview of transportation activists to become part of the general public discourse.

In principle, Vision Zero prescribes an ethical approach to traffic safety with the goal of eliminating all injuries and deaths in the transportation network. A distinguishing feature of the project is that it focuses on the responsibility of transportation system designers, in addition to individual road users. In practice, political considerations determine what is actually implemented as policy, and drivers, as a wealthy constituency, have an outsized ability to block improvements that they find inconvenient.

At the same time, a severe housing shortage in coastal cities have pushed discussions of zoning, not a famously popular topic, from the domain of city planners and into the mainstream. In general, U.S. cities are organized according to a system known as Euclidian or single-use zoning, which prescribes a separation of areas by function so that homes, offices, and factories are each relegated to their own discrete zone.

The goal of single-use zoning is to restrict development in a given area to one predictable purpose, but it has also been used as a pretext to segregate people by race and class. After 100 years, this approach has produced vast areas of auto-dependent sprawl, which is associated with higher rates of accident and injury for all road users.

For our submission to the Data Through Design exhibit, we wanted to explore the impact of zoning on New York City. To this end, we chose to display the locations of traffic fatalities overlaid on a map of the city’s zones. Zoning, deeply embedded in the form of the city, but often overlooked, is a reminder of Vision Zero’s focus on the need for systemic solutions to eliminate traffic fatalities. The multicolored acrylic layers of our visualisation, engraved with the shapes of each zone, and lit from below, give off a moody glow meant to attract viewers. Up close, circular holes, each representing a life lost at that location, become apparent in the top layer of acrylic.

Our project was built on Vision Zero data, provided by NYC OpenData. Although Vision Zero data is prepared in an easily digestible format, which is appropriate given its current priority status, incident locations are listed as the nearest intersection, which reduces the resolution of the location data somewhat. We chose to display fatalities from multiple years concurrently (2009 - 2017) because it made trends along particularly dangerous corridors, such as Canal Street, easier to identify. As an interesting counterpoint to this approach, another piece produced for the Data Through Design exhibit, Slow Down by Ellen Oh, chose to display each year separately, which made it possible to see trends over time.

NYC OpenData also provides highly detailed shape files for the city’s zones. The biggest challenge in this case was determining the appropriate level of detail for readability at the scale of the final piece. In the end, we chose to group and combine the zones into three distinct categories - residential, commercial, and manufacturing - because they represented the most common and distinct areas of the city.

Image: A test engraving of the residential zones layer. Credit: James Proctor.

Once the data was prepared, the next step was to produce images which could be read by our Glowforge laser cutter. For this, we used D3 to generate SVG files for each layer. After determining the correct scale, we engraved each layer into two pieces of transparent acrylic, one in color to help visually distinguish the zones, and another in clear to help make text and other fine details more readable.

Image: Laser-engraving in progress. Credit: James Proctor.

Finally, the acrylic sheets were cleaned and stacked together above a LED panel, which illuminated the transparent acrylic, making lower layers more clearly visible and highlighting the cut edges of the layers containing fatalities.

Image: Detail showing commercial zones in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. Image: James Proctor.

Our purpose in visually overlaying fatalities data from the Vision Zero dataset with New York’s residential, commercial, and manufacturing zones, was to provoke deeper questions about the systems that make places what they are, and encourage citizens to engage with the political process, rather than accept the status quo as inevitable. To put it explicitly, we’re not proposing a causal link between some particular zone and fatalities, but instead we want to move the conversation from one about individual choices, to focus on the underlying structural causes that make implementing the most effective lifesaving measures politically difficult to achieve.

Image: The final piece installed and ready for the opening. Credit: Sam Hyatt Photography.

Project team

Concept, Lead: James Proctor

Assistance from: Wes Grubbs, Katarina Madrid, and Nick Yahnke

About the author

James Proctor works as a Data Visualization Engineer at Pitch Interactive. He's interested in creating pieces that help provide people with new perspectives on information and the world around them. James studied Art and Psychology at the University of Delaware, where he got his start programming interactive installations. Since then, he's maintained an active software-based art practice.

Explore the project here.