United Colors Of Dissent
Orkan Telhan (University of Pennsylvania) and Mahir M. Yavuz (University of Art and Design Linz)
“United Colors of Dissent” (UCoD) is a platform that facilitates real-time data-driven performances in public places using mobile devices and public displays. Participants collectively respond to a series of questions in their preferred language using a web-based voting interface running on their phones or tablets At every question, UCoD builds real-time graphics based on the answers, and features them both on the phones and the displays. The performances, which range from thirty minutes to one-hour surveys, intend to capture the linguistic and socio-cultural profile of different communities in urban environments through visualizations and map the prejudices, assumptions, and biases present.
Languages — Cities — Publics
UCoD is designed as a data-sharing and visualization framework that supports real-time civic engagement among social groups and micro-communities. UCoD performances are made for cosmopolitan urban environments that are known for their rich and diverse public places. The events took place during festivals in Zaragoza (Spain), Linz (Austria), Istanbul (Turkey), and Marseilles (France), and were performed both as individual as well as synchronized performances in multiple cities (i.e. Marseilles-Istanbul) for connected experiences.
As the performances intend to emphasize the linguistic diversity in public spaces, the questions are prepared in most languages spoken in these cities. While participants remain entirely anonymous both during and after the performances, they can pick their desired language and follow each other’s responses in the visualization through color-coded representations that correspond to available languages. And as identification with any language is voluntary, speakers of the same language across different countries can still identify with each other and form a public that can transcend the physical boundaries of public spaces.
Public Space — Public Display — Mobile Interface
UCoD builds on the rich history of social catalysts designed for fostering interaction in public spaces. Here the performances take place within a hybrid domain that integrates the physical location of the public place, a shared public display, and mobile media where every participant can freely participate using a web-based interface.
This hybrid public domain extends William Whyte’s notion of “triangulation,” which addresses the capacity of a public artifact (a sculpture, monument, fountain and so on) in facilitating interaction among strangers, passerby or those who have nothing in common but a shared interest with the public artifact (Whyte 1980). UCoD explores the agency of public data collection and visualization for soliciting such triangulation. By answering a series of questions side by side and witnessing each other’s answers in real-time, the public relates to one another through their similarities and differences in response to the survey’s queries.
Regarding cultural prejudices and biases, UCoD is concerned with forming immediate opinions by asking participants questions that are designed to address both personal and communal matters. Based on a selection of topics such as the rise of right-wing politics in Europe, healthcare, social well being, education, immigration and environmental policies and so on, it prepares a list of inquiries that can solicit opinions from different groups of people. However, unlike traditional surveys, in which data is collected, represented, and mediated through different stages of interpretation and post-processing, real-time opinion forming relies on immediate interaction among the participants. Opinions are formed as people make selections, cast votes, and see each other’s answers. From personal matters to issues concerning kinship, religion, racial and cultural affiliation, participants witness how much difference every social group contains as they come together in an ad hoc manner while traversing public spaces.
UCoD is a scalable real-time visualization framework. It is designed to run surveys that can capture the opinion of a single individual with the least common language in the crowd or collect input from thousands who participate from different countries, using mobile interfaces or websites. UCoD uses a data streaming network provided by PubNub.com that allows performance testing in multiple cities and connecting remote public spaces and audiences with each other for simultaneous performances.
At the core of UCoD lies real-time data collection and visualization technologies that minimize the time it takes from soliciting questions to collecting answers and presenting results to all participants at the same time. When participants answer the questions using their mobile phones, they see themselves represented in the visualization as color-coded figures. As questions advance, they can track themselves on the public display and see the immediate impact of their decisions relative to other participants. The visualization animates and groups the figures based on how they align or differ from each other. These similarities and differences are based on a scale that plots figures determined by their votes, from positive to negative with intermediate values.
Our efforts towards transparency and immediacy in the visualization intend to build a sense of trust in the platform that can be missing from traditional surveys or data collection frameworks. Census reports, for example, usually report findings after months of processing times. Infographics are designed to convey specific messages, and tend to construct data in favor of their intended arguments. Other real-time visualizations feature aggregate or filtered results where it becomes hard to see individual contributions or witness how opinions can evolve during the data collection process.
UCoD’s technology also aims to foster a collective thinking process. While the identities of the participants are kept anonymous, the immediate nature of the visualization allows those who would like to share their opinions with each other to think and act together. Between every question, the participants are given enough time and feedback to answer questions together. We witness numerous cases in which participants voted after discussing their opinions with their friends or with a stranger standing next to them, hence experiencing “triangulation” in public space in person.
Collective Critique and Decision-making
How much our opinions align with others can shape our identities and communities in city life. Given its intentions to map out dissent, UCoD also seeks to find a new language to enable collective critique and agonistic modes of decision-making.
Unlike following the format of public protests or forms of civic disobedience, UCoD intends to produce visual documents that can voice the critique of temporary publics with respect to specific, local issues. While remaining unknown to each other, community members can view each other’s point of view, collect opinions and use them as the basis of a critique against institutions and policy makers.
UCoD works with local organizations to prepare questions that can bring awareness to disparate, under-recognized opinions while highlighting concerns spread from diverse groups.
However, instead of voicing the interests of mass media, a homogenous collective, or a singular opinion group or minority, UCoD integrates the opinions of a heterogeneous public that simultaneously co-exists with each other. Thus collective critique, here, does not intend to become the response of the members of an exclusive group but rather stands for a collective document — a publication — that can be authored by a group of dissident voices who happen to be at the same place at the same time.
As UCoD’s visualization maps on the basis of agreement and disagreement, it tries to build a ground of difference to work form. It promotes shared interests and common objectives while emphasizing the importance of differences that form the basis of diversity and discursive thinking in such temporary and provisional publics.
Similarly, UCoD favors an agonistic model of decision-making with respect to the complexity of socio-cultural issues pertaining to contemporary urban culture (Mouffe 2000). Instead of promoting integrative policies that privilege specific social groups’ rights over others, it solicits interest towards a plurality; building a forum that can aggregate opinions. When the public is solicited to express their interests — for example to approve new interventions to the public space or to express opinions towards changes in policies and reforms — UCoD intends to function as a mediator, trying to re-introduce different publics to one another.
Chantal Mouffe, The Democratic Paradox. New York: Verso, 2000.
William. H. Whyte, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. Washington, D.C.: Conservation Foundation, 1980.
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