Slow Down: A Data Through Design exhibit


By Ellen Oh, Slow Down

Cities as living organisms

A city is a living organism, and its urbanization has always fascinated me. Growing up in one of the largest cities in the world, I like to walk around the streets, explore new places, observe people. New York City, where I moved several years ago, is like a giant and constantly evolving urban ecosystem with dynamic energy. The city so-called “the city that never sleeps” is full of interesting subjects; there is a constant influx of pedestrians, bikers, motorists, and vehicles. But I’ve also noticed a tension and anxiety on the streets from these vehicles and crowds. I’ve wondered if people feel anxious and unsafe crossing the streets. How many times do I see bikers turn their bike into a puddle to avoid pedestrians or cars? Are people, just like I am, constantly on high alert on the road to avoid bikers, pedestrians, or other drivers while driving? Are we safe from traffic accidents? 

Vision Zero and NYC Open Data

While pondering these questions, I was delighted to find out about Vision Zero initiatives. Vision Zero is a multinational campaign, originating from Sweden in 1997, to eliminate all traffic fatalities and injuries while increasing safety for roads and mobility. In 2014, New York City was the first city in the U.S to implement Vision Zero and, since then, the initiative has driven a citywide effort for public safety.

Traffic crash data, along with other Vision Zero data from by Department of Transportation (DOT), are made available and shared at the NYC Open Data portal. Data contains fatalities for pedestrians, bikers, and motorists (drivers) and locates each fatality with the names of street intersections. DOT collects traffic crash fatalities data populated by New York City Police Department (NYPD) and, among all accidents reported to NYPD, only crashes with valid geographic information are mapped to the nearest intersection. Crashes occurring at complex intersections with multiple roadways are mapped on a single point and crashes that occurred on highways are excluded.

Every year, more than 200 traffic crashes and 50,000 injuries involving pedestrians, bikers, and drivers occur in the five boroughs of New York City; Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx, and Staten Island. Traffic crash fatalities have been decreasing, making 2017 the safest year on record with a total of 217 traffic fatalities. Still, the data shows that a person dies from traffic crashes every other day and about 140 people get injured every day. Overall, pedestrian fatalities account for more than half of fatalities and about 35% fatalities are deaths of drivers. Examining this data, I became curious about geographical pattern.

To explore this further, I mapped data points on a simplified outline of New York City using a cloud-based location mapping application, which I then exported to vector files. The vector files used an outline of the city map with a transparent background, which I overlaid with data points representing fatalities from the past eight years. Each year is highlighted with a different color. With surprise, it was not easy to immediately detect trends or patterns, indicating that fatalities occur everywhere in the city. I was also intrigued by the fact that each data point represents a deceased life, which will remain a permanent death mark on the street.

Data physicalization

The Slow Down project was built for New York’s Data Through Design Exhibition, where creative minds raise questions about the city, reveal insights from New York City government’s open datasets, and tell stories about the city through an artwork. Brainstorming for concept, I was attracted to the idea of data physicalization, a method of data visualization that encodes data in a physical object. I believe physical artifacts are an intuitive method of communication given that humans instinctively interact and sense them. Therefore, physical representations offer perceptual, cognitive, and communicative value that digital interfaces nor paper can match. Physical interaction amplifies the unique experience of sensing data, which ultimately provides more impressive opportunities to engage the audience with a particular issue. In this instance, I wanted to create a dialogue about public safety on the road and about mobility more broadly. The challenge was to find a way to translate quantitative data into a physical object, given the limitation of its scale, production, and budget.

Brainstorming, prototyping, and production

Transparent and fluorescent acrylic was an immediate choice of material. The transparency of the acrylic allowed overlapping and layering, allowing the viewer to see though each data point. Acrylic panels come in fluorescent colors, which gave it a glowing edge reminiscent of traffic signs. I used laser cutting technology to precisely cut outline of the complicated shape of New York City. Overall construction required several trials of material testing, prototyping and careful design of fabrication specification.

The first challenge was to figure out the dimensions for the acrylic sheets and the distance between panels, taking into account the sheet’s size limitations. Putting the entire New York City map required a bigger dimension sheet with high material cost and left too many blank areas (basically rivers and coastal oceans). So I ended up using a 18”x 24”(~46 cm x 61cm) rectangular acrylic sheet, with some of these blank areas cropped out. So, given that each year has more than 200 fatalities and taking into account the cropped map, about 150-170 data points are shown on the panel.                                                       

After deciding on the dimensions the sheet, I tested out optimal distances between panels, and their thickness, to ensure that they would be strong enough to stand and hold by base structure. The most important part of the construction was to overlay multiple panels but still make lines, shapes, and data points visible through each panel. The idea of the overall piece was to not only allow the audience to a view of yearly data, but to also unify eight panels aesthetically to maximize a message from this data. On the left side of the panels, the message “slow down” can be read from top to bottom.

The next challenge was making eight layers of data points clearly visible. Based on my experience working with acrylic, I knew the data points would not stand out if engraved or cut on the same sheet of acrylic. I tested different types of pigments, paints, and materials such as Sharpie pens and nuts, but none provided the aesthetics I wanted. To obtain the ideal aesthetics, with minimal distraction from different materials, I ended up using acrylic rods pierced through the background sheet.

Once the materials were chosen, the color and thickness of the rods had to be engineered for structural construction. My initial choice of color for the map was pink fluorescent acrylic, but after playing around with different colors the overall tone of pink fluorescent acrylics turned out to be too dark when layering eight panels in a row and too foggy to clearly see the data points on the map. The green fluorescent acrylic had better clarity and visibility and, when combined with the magenta acrylic rods, the combination of the two colors mimicked traffic signals.

Further findings

As I assembled the piece for the exhibition, I realized how time-consuming building the base, sliding in the eight panels, and inserting about 1300 – 1400 rode, would be. However, it was worth it to see how the enormous volume of magenta rods attracted viewers’ attention.

After receiving additional feedback during the exhibition, I see further opportunities for the rods to represent multiple layers of data. For example, the length of rods or the use of multiple colored rods could have represented another layer of information, such as different type of fatalities or demographics.

Another discovery was finding a discrepancy between the total number of fatalities in the excel file and on the Vision Zero View map. After speaking with a Vision Zero data analyst, I learned that this discrepancy results from the data collection method – the complete set of accident records is not available since accident locations are not always obtainable.

Data Through Design Exhibition

Data Through Design was an art exhibit part of 2018 NYC Open Data Week showcasing works based on open data under the theme “8 Questions for the City”. The exhibition is co-organized by the Pratt SAVI, CARTO, Enigma, and will be hosted at the Made in NY Media Center from March 2-10.

About the author

Ellen Oh is a multidisciplinary designer based in New York City and currently work at a real estate company as an in-house designer. She was previously a consultant in South Korea working for KPMG, Cisco Systems etc. She moved to New York City years ago to pursue education and career in design. During her years as a consultant, she learned about unlimited potential of data and technology and since then she kept her interest in the field. She is also a trained industrial and graphic designer from Pratt Institute, and naturally attracted to applying creative ideas to physical objects and solving problems through design. Ellen likes to bring analytics and creativity together to view the world through various angles, and design beautiful and meaningful things.


Support from CARTO, Pratt SAVI, Enigma and especially thanks to Jessie Braden and Case Wyse from Pratt SAVI, Wenfei Xu from CARTO.

Explore the Slow Down project here.