DAT503 – On Broadway – Paper Review

Lev Manovich

“Dr. Lev Manovich is one the leading theorists of digital culture worldwide, and a pioneer in the application of data science for analysis of contemporary culture.”


One of “25 People Shaping the Future of Design” (complex.com)

“Lev Manovich used his first computer in 1977, after two years of writing programs on paper for a programming class in Moscow. His code was impeccable, but when he typed it in, the machine spat back a failure message. He’d never used a computer keyboard before, and had typed O’s instead of zeroes.

In the 37 years since that keyboard failure, Manovich has become one of the smartest voices on the way we interact with computers. His landmark 2001 treatise The Language of New Media broke down central visual ideas like resizable windows and file menus in intricate detail, unpacking conventions that most had taken for granted.”

(“50 Most Interesting People Building the Future” (theverge.com))

On Broadway

The On Broadway project focused on a single street in NYC – part of Broadway running through Manhattan for 13 miles – and analysed images shared along Broadway on Instagram and Twitter, Google Street View, Foursquare check-ins, taxi rides, and selected economic and social indicators using US Census data.

Manovich points to the wealth of existing representations of city life by artists, writers and filmmakers. However, he cites as direct inspiration, Edward Ruscha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip. It is an artist book that unfolds to 25 feet (8.33 meters) to show continuous photographic views of both sides of a 1.5-mile long section of Sunset Boulevard.

Manovich wanted to create a 21st century representation of the living city without using maps or graphs or numbers.

He was able to create a modern-day version of Ruscha’s work thanks to the availability of data in the city; data in the form of Open Data datasets, as well as visual, geo-coded media contributed by individuals via social networks and services such as Foursquare.

The Data At a Glance
  • Collected between February 26 and August 3, 2014
  • Instagram: 661,809 images
  • Twitter: 158 days worth of tweets
  • Foursquare: 8,527,198 check-ins
  • Google Street View: 700+ images
  • Taxi trips: 22,000,000
  • Plus US Census data
Navigating the Data Street, without Maps

Manovich managed to develop an interactive interface to a wealth of visual and geographic data … all without reference to a map.

Screenshot from On Broadway application, showing full zoomed-out view – all 13 miles of Broadway in Manhattan

He saw the interface as a new visual metaphor for thinking about and exploring the city. Interestingly, when ordinary New Yorkers interacted with the interface, they immediately located images which were meaningful to them – where they lived or where they were born, for instance. This is much the same as we might explore a more conventional map-based interface such as Google Street View; we tend to first focus on our own town, city, or street.

The interface allowed the ordinary citizen to manipulate massive, impersonal-seeming datasets in a way that was meaningful and applicable to their own experience. It visualised data and the relationships between different sets of data in a unique way.

Manovich is using this project to highlight the fact that a massive amount of data is collected and used in ways that are often invisible to us. There is an imbalance in the data collected by cities and released by cities. Open Data only contains what the city wants to release and is often related to the city as an entity, rather than it’s citizens.

By contrast, the data collected and analysed by social media (and other) networks is about individuals: their patterns of movement, opinions, and interactions with other people.

“But ordinary people are not aware that the tweets, comments, images, and video they share are easily accessible to anybody via … free API tools. While articles in popular media often note that individuals’ data is collected, aggregated and used for variety of purposes, including surveillance or customization of advertising, they typically don’t explain that this data is also available to individual researchers, artists or students.”

On Broadway, then, goes some way to educating the public about access and use of personal data and does so in an engaging and aesthetic way. It also prompts us to ask questions about our significance as individuals in the age of Big Data:

  • How do we imagine ourselves and the places we live in the context of massive data analysis?
  • Is is possible to combine in a meaningful way vast datasets and an individual’s details?
  • What other interfaces will emerge that will allow us to interact with the information that is collected about us?
  • And what will that tell us about the way we use social media and share our data?

Read the article: manovich_on_broadway (PDF)

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