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.

Adventures of a Frequent Flyer – Impact

Trucking bees all over the country is a powerful image. Most people don’t realize what happens behind the scenes to produce the food they eat every day. During this class we have enjoyed exploring datasets and finding creative ways to turn csv’s into narratives that stick in people’s heads. We were drawn to study bees because of the strong narrative that has been in press in recent years that has made many people vaguely aware of the importance of bees in agriculture. We used the prior press coverage as our hook to draw in people to learn more specifics about how bees travel across the country every year to pollinate everyone’s favorite fruits.

There are significant network effects in fruit production because bee colonies need to remain healthy throughout their interstate journey. Dangers in one state directly influence crop yields in others, with strong effects cascading across the country from Florida to South Dakota. Massachusetts is one of many stops that bees make, so local citizens should recognize their important role in protecting bees locally to facilitate nationwide fruit production. Despite proposed legislation to protect pollinators, few people are aware of the gravity of the issue. In the previous sketches in the course, our group enjoyed creating interactive games because of how fun and memorable they can be. Combining these themes, we created Adventures of a Frequent Flyer to tell the story of migratory bees and rally support for societally beneficial legislation to protect pollinators both locally and nationally.

Our audience is visitors of a famers’ market. These are people who value fresh fruits and are interested to engage with the people who produce them. People are often less rushed in a farmers’ market than a supermarket, making them more likely to wander around and more receptive to learn about new things. While testing our prototype to the desired audience, we noticed a large number of people walking around the booths. We brought a large whiteboard to the market with a collection of fruit stickers taped on in a grid-like pattern, brightly decorated to attract attention. Visitors were first introduced to the context of the game. We explained how commercial beekeepers manage their bees and their importance to fruit production. We prompted the user to choose a favorite fruit, engaging them by personalizing the discussion. Users then traced a typical path that bees would be traveling to pollenate a series of crops, ultimately reaching their destination where their favorite fruit is grown. In addition to highlighting the often-complicated paths bees are traveling, along the way we highlighted the level of regulatory protection each state has related to protecting pollinators.

We found that the game caused users to empathize with bee keepers and personify the bees. One person exclaimed, “if I was a beekeeper, I would keep my colony safe!” After speaking with our group and completing the activity, 100% of the users we surveyed reported that they had learned something new about the issue and were amenable to support bee protection laws in the future. Our goal was to inform and empower people to make changes in their living and voting habits to support the bees that help produce the fruits in our grocery baskets. Many users started our activity saying, “I had no idea bees were moved around like this!” The same people would leave our farmers’ market stand saying, “this is really informational, I learned a lot here.” Supporting pollinators is a big challenge, but progress has to start somewhere. Engaging participatory games that reinforce a data-driven narrative felt like the right way to introduce the discussion!

Adventures of a Frequent Flyer – Methodology

We started with the example bee colony dataset that was included in the project suggestions. From there, we explored how bee populations have changed over time. It was clear from the data that bee populations have rebounded to a certain extend from their low points about 5 years ago. We explored what are the biggest risks facing bees, finding articles about pesticides, mites, and accidents related to the transport of bees in trucks.

Curious about the circumstances that led to 92,000 bees in a semitruck traveling on the California interstate highways, we discovered some interesting facts about migratory bees. Particularly, we were shocked with the scale and complexity involved to pollenate crops around the US. We found some data from the USDA to understand more concretely how bees travel throughout the country. The numbers were staggering both in terms of the market opportunity for commercial bees and the distance traveled by bees each year. While impressive, the numbers were so large, that they were hard to interpret and even harder to feel connected to at the local level. At first, we struggled to connect the story about the nationwide tours bees with the local impact an audience could feasibly enact.

The cascading effects of bee health are so large that lawmakers around the US have proposed legislation to protect pollinators. Washington state, for example, has enacted laws that protect bees from dangerous pesticides. Many other states, including Massachusetts, have proposals, but so far nothing has been signed into law. Since bees take long winding journeys throughout the country, it is possible that the proposed effects of new regulations could have an outsize effect on bees around the country. With this call to action, we survey possible delivery techniques to make our data relatable, actionable, and memorable. While the map we found online was interesting, it had extraneous information that didn’t focus on the story we wanted to tell.  Therefore, we created an abstract map that would highlight the same arduous paths for migratory bees, while removing details that were not central to our message.

To make our story understandable and memorable, we decided to employ a participatory game. We prompted users to make predictions and invited them to trace the paths that bees travel, highlighting important facts along the way that would confirm/reject their estimations. The game structure, in addition to engaging the user, helped us sequentially present a lot of information in a digestible manner. Steps in the game introduced new facts about the bees such as where particular fruits were in the US and the legislation(s) protecting bees in those areas. We aimed to fit the narrative arc of our story to the sequential nature of the game. Our combination of humor, abstraction, and interaction aims to entertain and inform users, creating a memorable experience with actionable next steps. Incorporating many of the ideas from throughout the semester, we hope that Adventures of a Frequent Flyer will connect with people in a way that news articles haven’t and influence people to consider important issues that might easily be overlooked otherwise.


Links to our data:

It’s a Mysterbee: Methodology

We took bee colony data from 2016 and 2017 from this dataset:

Specifically, the numbers we represented were from the Number of Colonies, Maximum, Lost, Percent Lost, Added, Renovated, and Percent Renovated with Five or More Colonies datasets, and we took the data from October-December 2016 and April-June 2017. We focused on data related to Massachusetts so that individuals would have a more personal connection to the data. We selected the data to exhibit the drop in colony count over a six month period. In particular, we really wanted to emphasize how rapidly colony count can decline over a short amount of time. The data was already very clean for our intended purposes, so we do not have to perform any additional cleaning. We did not have to complete any additional analysis (aggregation, etc.) because the numbers related to the story we wanted to tell are already in the dataset.


Once our data was actually selected and prepared, we deliberated on the best way to present the data. We knew that the story we wanted to tell was that bee colonies are rapidly declining (and can quickly drop going forward). We considered many different strategies for portraying this message including: a weight based participatory data game (where the weight of certain objects corresponds to the value of the data), a geographically oriented participatory data game (where the geographical location of the relevant data is at the core of the story), a physical data participatory game (where the physical properties of objects/entities associated with bees are at the core of the story).


Ultimately, we decided that a physical data participatory game, in which the physical properties of objects/entities associated with bees are utilized to tell the story, was best. We believed that this editorial decision would enhance the personal connection that people make with the data and therefore improve both impact and memory for participants. We also thought that a simple, efficient participatory data game would improve people’s willingness to engage in the game.


From there, we had to decide which physical objects that are associated with bees we could utilize in our participatory data game. Several came to mind: hives, trees, flowers, other plants, honey, etc. We decided that honey was the optimal choice because many people are familiar with honey and immediately associate honey with bees. Other objects, such as flowers, have less direct relation with bees, which might create some ambiguity for participants. Beyond this, honey has several well defined and recognized physical properties that we could exploit for our data game such as: viscosity, distinct color, and enjoyable taste. All of these factors contributed to our decision to utilize honey to tell the story of declining bee populations.


Sticking with the minimalist design that we thought would increase participant engagement, we chose to fill two opaque jars with honey. The amount of honey in each jar directly corresponded to the number of colonies in the respective time period (2016 or 2017), which are not initially visible to the viewer. From there, we wanted to incorporate the physical properties of taste and viscosity into the experience. So, we gave each participant two crackers and instructed them to dip their crackers into each jar. Immediately, participants see a significantly less amount of honey on the cracker dipped in the 2017 jar. From there, the participants have the option of eating the cracker, at which point the sense of taste becomes involved in the data experience. From this minimalist experience, participants are quickly oriented around the topic of bees and educated on the rapidity and immediacy of their decline through a very tangible, real, and memorable medium.

If participants want more information, we provide them with a brochure that gives more thorough context and understanding. In particular, we encourage participants (since they are MIT students) to engage in or support MIT research on the topic. This is explained more thoroughly in the impact blog post.