Mobile City Science

October 31, 2016

Reflection on Mobile City Science Seattle Training

Connecting lines

Catherine: We need to go in a straight line BEHIND the bus.

Tene: You mean, BEHIND this bus?

Catherine: Yes (pointing with the Garmin).

Tene: Okay, I see what you’re saying.

Catherine: And hopefully that will intersect the street? [They clarify again which direction they need to go]

Tene: Let’s try it.

Catherine: Who ever thought a triangle would be so hard?











Catherine and Tene were learning to implement GPS Drawing by practicing this activity in the U district of the University of Washington, where they spent four days in October participating in the Mobile City Science Curriculum training. Tasked with “drawing” a shape or word onto the map of the area using a GPS device they carried while walking around the neighborhood, Catherine and Tene had decided to try to draw the Greek letter Delta, a symbol of the changes that have taken place in (and continue to alter) the U district. In order to draw this triangular symbol, they needed to close the shape by connecting two lines they had walked with the third line, but where this line ought to be drawn was in question. In order to make this connection, they had to walk a pathway back to their starting point on the other side of Parrington lawn on UW’s campus. As they proceeded back to where their Delta had originated on 15th Avenue, with me scurrying after them with my video camera, trying to avoid tripping in the uneven grass, they walked with purpose, slowing only once to veer around a homeless man sleeping under a tree. Successfully connecting this large triangle, they went on to draw two more, one in the parking lot of the Hotel Deca north of 45th, and another in a section of Brooklyn Ave., closed off for Light Rail construction.

Connecting to places

I want to return to the brief moment when we bypassed the homeless man sleeping under the tree on campus, because this was more than just incidental and is emblematic of another sort of connection made during the training. One theme that arose again and again during the week- through our UW research team’s MCS training planning process, in traveling around the neighborhood during the training activities, in conversations with local business people, and throughout our training debriefs following each activity- was the social and economic tensions at play in the U district. These tensions coalesce around issues like “upzoning” buildings for business development and locating spaces for homeless youth in a neighborhood largely designed around student life. In one debrief session, Catherine commented that she almost felt more connected in some ways to the U district, where they had spent just a few days, than the neighborhood around where she works in Queens. I echo this sentiment, and I think it is not uncommon to spend years in places but not really take time to know about the rich histories- or patterns of oppression- that shape current conditions for possibility and vibrancy in cities. In some ways, the MCS training was a great opportunity for U district locals and visitors alike to feel connected to this place and some of its stories-in-the-making. We are all excited to see what emerges when we create spaces for young people to show how they are invested in change processes as well as to design for repair of dis-connection to place.

Connecting to people

It is worth saying that we also forged connections as research collaborators through the training week. I may have mentioned that some walking took place? Well, far from your usual academic conference or research meeting which involves mostly sitting, we actually did quite a lot of walking. Traveling by foot through the U district was a way of bringing us together over activities in-action as opposed to talking abstractly about how the activities might be enacted in other places. Several of us who are runners connected over this shared form of mobility, and runners from out of town got in a couple Seattle runs, even collecting heart rate data out on the Burke Gilman trail! We also got to connect via video chat with colleagues collaborating remotely in Chicago and NYC during the training.

Connecting technology

When we were not out on the move getting to know each other and the city, we were often inside downloading the data we had collected during MCS mapping activities. However, to get to the stage of downloading the data, literally hours of technical work had to be performed by our training team. Unpacking all the devices, setting them up to record data, learning how to operate new technologies, and making sure they were charged were on-going activities on the way to making the data available to process and debrief. “Downloading the data” is itself a black box researchers have to figure out how to illuminate or unpack in order to make visible what took place in the field. Connecting cables, adapters, cords, memory cards, and action camera harnesses all had to occur before we could actualize all the other connections waiting to be made in the U district.

–Deborah Silivis