Building back Somerville’s urban forest – Impact

Our goal was to get people to reflect on what trees mean to them to personalize the issue that we are presenting. We wanted to encourage people to reach out to the Urban Forestry Department to request a tree in their neighborhood.

Our audience was Somerville residents, as well as others who work, shop, visit, use public services in the city. We were focusing on pedestrians, as they are better able to engage with participatory sculpture.  In order to capture a range of Union Square visitors and capitalize on foot traffic, we exhibited the tree during Porchfest.

Approximately 100 people stopped to read the facts or read the sign on the tree skeleton. Initially, we allowed pedestrians to ask us what we were doing, but after a while, we asked them if they wanted to participate when they stopped to read.

At the same time, approximately 30 people just read the facts and kept walking, engaging with the project at a lower level of reading. While they did not reach the stage of hearing about the Urban Forestry Department, we heard several who began a conversation about trees after walking by. Finally, 32 people filled out leaves and added them to the tree.

Among those who stopped and participated, we asked if they had heard about the Urban Forestry Department and if they knew about the call-line. Only five people had heard about the Urban Forestry Department, and no one knew about the call line.

We found that most people relied on us to invite them to participate and walk them through the activity. A couple people stopped to ask us what we were doing or if they could participate, but no one asked for a bookmark (even though that was included in the instructions on the poster and available with markers on the tree). This suggests that we would likely need to rethink the design of the invitation/instructions if we wanted this to be an unsupervised sculpture.

Team: Yihang Sui, Scott Gilman, Haley Claire, Jay Dev, and Marc Exposito.

Building back Somerville’s urban forest – Methodology

We decided to create a new project to engage members of the community in an urban issue, rather than iterating on a previous idea. We wanted to portray the importance of trees by telling a story of the absence of one; specifically, creating shade in a place without trees on a sunny day with help from the community.

For that, we decided to create the chalk outline of a shadow to show the full potential of tree shades, and provide further benefits of urban trees within the shadow. We brainstormed two local calls to action to get residents invested in their local trees- petition to create an adopt-a-tree program (which has proven effective in other places), and directing people to contact the city’s Urban Forestry Department. We settled on the second idea as it better flowed within the narrative arc.

We identified locations where more trees could be planted as well as collecting facts about the impacts of trees in the city, using the following data sources:

Identification of location in Somerville: Link
Pollutant removal: Link
Peak temperatures: Link
CO2 absorption: Link

We created the skeleton of a tree from a tomato cage and wooden dowels (to simulate leaves), which was “planted” in a bucket of dirt.

We had participants choose between several different prompts (listed below), which were written on leaves, and then attach them to the skeleton using ornament hooks:

1. Draw your favorite tree

2. If you could plant a tree anywhere, where would you plant it?

3. Tell us a story about your favorite tree


Also, attached to the skeleton was a small poster which prompted passersby to “Help us build back Somerville’s Urban Forest,” with instructions on what to do.

We also created bookmarks in the shape of trees with our tree facts on one side and the phone number and email of Somerville’s Urban Forestry Department on the other.

This bookmark has three goals: 1) Give instant reward to participants, 2) Engage participants into taking action, and 3) Spread the word (other people will wonder where that bookmark comes from)

Finally, when we arrived at our site, we used sidewalk chalk to draw a hypothetical shadow around the tree skeleton and added several key facts in different colors (with the key statistic written in a brighter color than the rest of the fact)


Team: Yihang Sui, Scott Gilman, Haley Claire, Jay Dev, and Marc Exposito.

Breathing Beijing

How does it feel to breathe in Beijing? We are exploring the US Department of State “Mission China” Air Quality dataset in an effort to recreate the experience of breathing with varying degrees of difficulty.

We are grouping the data into three categories: good air quality, moderate, and low.  With each category, a different breathing experience aims to be simulated using different straws.

We believe this is a powerful physical data experience because it is simple in execution but powerful in action. The simple act of trying to breathe through different straws re-creates the experience of having different levels of breathing difficulty. This directly connects a person in this exhibition with a person living in Beijing that has different breathing difficulties due to the air pollution levels.

In order to differentiate the air pollution levels, we have used colors and the diameter of the straw.

This is the data for 2016:

Green color – Hours where measured air pollution is less than 100: 6720 hours, 76.8% of total hours for the year

Yellow color – Hours where measured air pollution is between 101 and 200: 1418 hours, 16.2% of total hours for the year

Red color – Hours where measured air pollution is greater than 200: 617 hours, 7% of total hours for the year.\

Team: Kallirroi Retzepi, Helen K. Bailey, Mitchel L Myers, and Marc Exposito

Marc’s Data Log

Here is a log of all the data points I created and collected on February 20th, 2018:

With digital devices:

  • Digitally scanned my fingerprint several times using the touchID on my iPhone to unlock the device
  • Connected to 3 different Wi-Fi networks
  • I performed several taps and scrolls using apps on my iPhone
  • Plugged a USB to USB-C adapters to my Macbook 6 times
  • I visited more than 100 websites, 12 of them are new websites (never visited before). This generated around 14 tabs using Chrome.
  • I skipped several ads on different platforms (especially on Youtube)
  • Talked on iMessage with 3 different people and exchanged around 30 messages with them
  • Played around 100 songs on Spotify
  • Received 21 emails and sent 9 emails

With humans/world:

  • Trash I have generated in the environment
  • Executed a vast amount of social interactions with people (in the Media Lab, the restaurant…)
  • Performed eye contact with another person several times
  • Consumed oxygen and generated breathed out carbon dioxide

With Myself (I understand my thoughts as data points):

  • Asked myself if I am happy at MIT twice
  • Thought “What am I doing in this meeting?” around 6 times

It is very hard to collect and quantify all types of data we generate every day. Everything that exists can be analyzed, e.g.: Heart rate, the pressure applied to the ground with our feet…

The key questions are “What do we want to learn?” and “How can we learn that?”. Collecting data for the sake of collecting data is… somehow unethical and a waste of resources. At the same time, I understand that future technology might benefit from every single type of data collected in the past.