Microsoft Research Project Tells You What a Neighborhood Is Thinking

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the-new-logo-of-microsoftBy now, it’s clear that big business sees the value in analytics. What’s less clear is whether “big data” can capture the imagination of the ordinary user, providing the enough context and meaning to compete with more traditional forms of media. Researchers at Microsoft are on a mission to find out.

HereHere, a month-old project created by Microsoft’s research division, profiles the 42 neighborhoods in New York City by collecting publicly available 311 data to reveal the most talked-about issues in the boroughs. By entering their zip code, a user can interact with an animated map displaying the neighborhood’s statuses.

Today, for example, East Harlem’s mood is “delighted”: “No missing hydrant concerns, air quality complaints, or bad street condition concerns,” the neighborhood proclaims in a speech bubble on the project’s interactive map. The Upper West Side, on the other hand, is “uncomfortable,” due in large prat to “a few reports of underage drinking” and “overflowing litter basket complaints.”

The map, which was built on top of the company’s sentient data initiative, is the latest in a series of projects which aim to turn hyperlocal information into meaningful consumer content. The most noteworthy hyperlocal initiative in this realm, EveryBlock, was shut down by NBC Universal only to be reopened earlier this year.

HereHere’s lead researcher, Kati London, thinks everyone can benefit from the big data era, which so far has been sequestered by the businesses and organizations with the resources to collect it.

“It’s about humanizing data, and, as a part of that, there’s this infrastructure under HereHere of the sentient data server,” London said. “We’re evolving this early prototype on top of that — translating [information] into what’s become these data-driven comics.”

Within HereHere, Williamsburg, Chelsea, the Financial District and Morningside Heights all have distinct personalities, formed by the opinions of their residents on things like safety, noise, and traffic. For instance, the system classifies Harlem as “delighted” because the topics its residents typically complain about —say, air quality — are non-issues today. Meanwhile, the Upper West Side is labeled as “discomfort, “ because the the data suggest that the neighborhood residents are experiencing irritants which they’re typically not used to experiencing.

“We’re trying to get New Yorkers using it as we iterate on it,” she said. “We’re integrating that use into our design process.”

The team is continuing to test the best ways to distribute the data. In addition to the interactive map, the system also generates status updates by sorting tweets with geolocation information into specific neighborhoods. “It’s a mindset of: ‘Let’s experiment with different interaction methodologies and patterns to see which ones drive engagement in the community,’” London said.

HereHere also offers daily awards to each of the neighborhoods based on the volume of data received on different topic. The Biggest Trash Talker award is given to the neighborhood with the most litter complaints; the Most Artistic neighborhood has the most reports of graffiti. London says the project has seen a lot of success working with superlatives, playful mechanisms for users to connect with the project on a personal level.

“We’re seeking a better understanding around how to make data readable at the human scale,” London said. “How do we speak to people on their terms, about things that are very important to them? This could be data about a city, or a neighborhood, or a house. How can data be integrated into everyday life?”

Annie Melton is a reporter at Street Fight.


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