Mobile City Science

January 17, 2017

How to Prepare: What MCS Facilitators Need to Do/Know About the Area Before Implementing PART I

Blog post by Katie Headrick Taylor, PI & Deborah Silvis, RA


Mobile City Science has been successfully implemented in Chicago by the Digital Youth Network. As our larger group thinks about what it will take to implement in New York, we have developed an essential list of facilitator preparation for the New York Hall of Science to consider before their work with local youth. We will share this essential facilitator “guide” in two parts.


Part I describes: 1. Walking the neighborhood; 2. Talking with local stakeholders; 3. Visiting the local library; and 4. Poking around online.


Part II will describe: 5. Taking photos of the common, the impressive, and the lackluster; 6. Mapping community assets; and 7. Taking a drive with a local.


  1. Get out and walk the neighborhood

The ave.PNG

Figure 1: Two facilitators walk around the neighborhood, carrying the MCS backpack toolkit that youth will use, to get a better sense of the area.


No surprises here. MCS is all about using the moving, sensing body as the primary resource for learning about the neighborhood. Facilitators, who may be less familiar with the area than the youth with whom they will work, have to do this legwork before implementing. Walking the neighborhood helps adult facilitators answer some important questions in preparation for their MCS implementation.

  • What's the "study terrain?" 

Walking the neighborhood helps facilitators determine the boundaries of the area MCS youth can engage with on foot and also map with mobile and place-based tools. Walking the area will give facilitators a sense of any obstacles to being a pedestrian, and the main pedestrian corridors that are options for the various mapping activities (e.g., walking audit, historic neighborhood geocache). There are always many qualities about an area that are only observable on foot. Therefore, facilitators can’t rely on just their driving or biking knowledge of an area to facilitate mostly walking mapping tasks.

  • What's the neighborhood vibe?

Getting out to walk the neighborhood gives facilitators a sense of the affective qualities that saturate a neighborhood and/or community. Sometimes the way a neighborhood feels to a passerby shifts as the person moves from block to block. There may be particular areas where the energy is frenetic with people getting on and off public transit, in a hurry to get to the next place. There may be other spots that are quiet and more relaxed with many families and young children using a public parklet, for instance. Facilitators also need to know any areas that provoke an uneasy (as in physically dangerous) feeling for whatever reason, as these are locations you want to avoid sending young people into during the mobile mapping activities.

  • Are there better ways to get around? If so, why?

As a facilitator, you’ve walked around and noticed that this neighborhood isn’t very conducive to foot traffic. There are few sidewalks, and the ones that do exist aren’t connected to one another. There are several high traffic roads. Construction sites disrupt sidewalk connectivity.   What are the options for implementing a MCS curriculum here? Consider if young people could safely come to this conclusion on their own during a walking audit. If so, chances are they would have lots of suggestions for how the neighborhood could change to be pedestrian friendly. Also, consider shifting the study terrain a bit to an area that might be more conducive to walking. If walking is not an option, facilitators can consider mapping activities that use bikes or the public transit system if the urban infrastructure is more conducive to those modes of mobility.


  1. Talk with local stakeholders


Figure 2. Speaking with a local business owner gave facilitators a sense of the most pressing issues facing the neighborhood.


Part of the MCS experience is for young people to get a sense of the variety of perspectives small business owners, residents, and other stakeholders have on pressing local issues. To do so, they will talk with some of these people through the mobile mapping activities, like the historic geocache. For facilitators, getting a sense of who some of these local stakeholders might be before implementing is an important step in their prep work.


In our own preparation, we have reached out to people first via email and then met with them face-to-face, and also just walked into shops and neighborhood institutions and introduced ourselves and the work (and offered our business cards with contact information). We have made sure to ask if the local stakeholder would be willing to chat with youth when/if they stopped by. These short, relationship-building conversations with local stakeholders address a few important questions when preparing for MCS implementation.

  • What are the most pressing, neighborhood specific issues?

Facilitators would be hard pressed to find an urban neighborhood or community without some “hot button” issues that are specific to the people and place. For example, in Seattle, we know that a problem at the city scale is the lack of affordable housing. However, when we dug into the neighborhood where we did our training — the University District — we quickly discovered that the most hotly contested topic for local shop owners was the issue of “upzoning” brought on by the newly built light rail station. For many longtime shopkeepers, the perception is that upzoning will dramatically change the character of the neighborhood; small businesses will no longer be able to afford their leases in new, high rise retail spaces. Knowing about this and other ongoing issues was important for how we framed the various mapping activities, and what we expected participants to encounter and have to process along the way.

  • How has this place changed recently?

All places have changed, and continue to do so. The nature of these changes can be highly specific to the neighborhood, related to the types of development happening, or planned (e.g., new road, new light rail station, new high density housing, new company opening). Sometimes it’s easier to find out details about the changes that have happened in an area at a longer historical timescale — books tell us those stories, as can long form journalism or websites (see below). But understanding the nature of recent or ongoing changes is usually best understood from talking with a local. They, of course, are living these changes, sometimes on a daily basis. How people talk about these ongoing changes can also vary greatly depending on how they perceive and experience the impact, and what their relative roles are in the neighborhood (e.g., business owner, resident, commuter, student).

  • How do locals talk about the area by name?

The name and boundaries of a neighborhood or community may seem straightforward or trivial. However, nothing could be further from the truth. In Chicago, for instance, the DYN team found that residents referred to their “home” neighborhood with a different name, and at a different grain size, than that of Google Maps or Chicago databases. Locals often specify their neighborhood or community as an area much smaller than ones that are “officially” recognized. This DYN team experience is consistent with a news story about how Chicagoans draw, name, and talk about their neighborhoods in terms that can sometimes vary radically from official maps that are used to make policy and development decisions. Implementing MCS in a neighborhood for which one has the wrong name, or inappropriately considers as having a “cohesive character” across a large geographic area, may be the death knell for facilitators.


  1. Visit the local library

Libraries – and the librarians who work there – are vital sources of local knowledge. (If you need convincing of this idea, please check out this piece by Shannon Mattern). Visiting libraries in and around the neighborhood you are learning about and chatting with people who work there can reveal hidden troves of historical and geographic information. Carefully planned visits to the library serve a number of purposes as you become familiar with background contexts and gather resources. The library itself may turn out to be a place of significance that youth find themselves exploring during MCS implementation.

  • What's the historical context of the area?

While some facilitators may already be very familiar with a given neighborhood, chances are many are not and, like the youth who will be participating, all facilitators will benefit from studying the history of the local area. Keep in mind that the history of a place is long, so consider how timescales affect what you are able to find out. When was a particular area “developed?” What have patterns of mobility meant for people who have lived in this area over tens or hundreds of years? More recently, what have been some key events that have marked the landscape or have factored into sociopolitical issues that face local residents today? When dipping your toes into the water of local history at the library, be prepared for vast amounts of information to come flowing out of library archives! Facilitators should have a plan for focusing the search, such as relevant keywords or significant dates.

  • How has the area been represented through maps? How have these maps changed?

Most libraries have map sections or map rooms, and some of these are quite extensive. Taking time to explore these resources is a way for facilitators to engage with the same representational forms youth will be examining and creating. Another reason to visit the library’s maps collection is to curate a number of exemplary maps for constructing curriculum materials. Facilitators should look for theme maps- such as maps that feature local historical markers- and choose maps that have a clear layout and are neither too “busy” nor too specific (i.e. transportation maps that depict bus lines rather than street names). Facilitators may want to consider how two maps of the same place(s) from different time periods may diverge and what this can show about changes over time. There may also be things learned during historical research at the library that remain “invisible” on some maps. Be sure to note these.


  1. Poke around online

At various stages, while facilitators are walking, riding, driving and visiting with local community members around the neighborhood, it will help to search online for more expansive information about points of interest. In addition to the digital archives at the library, internet resources will provide context and sometimes key “missing pieces” that just aren’t visible while physically out and about. As with anything else, some online resources are more suited to this than others.

  • What "digital traces" of this place exist on the internet?

The themes or topics surrounding a place that tend to accumulate online can point to what issues are salient or what historically has shaped how the place appears today. (As an example, RA Erin Riesland pointed us to this excellent resource about our Seattle study terrain.) These topics may coalesce around a key digital document. City planning documents, “master plans,” and neighborhood newsletters are all online repositories for representing processes of change in places.

  • Are there stories about this place that you've missed?

Perhaps poking around online will help contextualize for facilitators what they have seen or heard on walks and talks around the neighborhood. Alternatively, the public face of a place as seen online may differ starkly from the lived reality at ground level. Maybe the online record is not keeping pace with the changes happening at the local level. Or else the voices seen and heard online are not the same as those seen and heard in the streets on foot. Being attentive to these differences can often open up space for missing stories or perspectives or point to tensions that might play out in unpredictable ways during curriculum implementation.