Thesis really kicked into gear last spring when I met up with Nikki Sylianteng, an alumna of the program, to speak with her about her experiences working on her thesis in 2013. Nikki helped me set expectations in several ways. First, she reminded me that my thesis would not be the last idea I ever had, nor the last project I ever worked on. I didn’t have to shoehorn every compelling thought I had into it. This thought may sound obvious in hindsight, but it had a very powerful impact. It resonated with me later, when I decided to focus my energies on only the shopper side of a service concept that had equally-important shopper and merchant components. There will be time to work on those other aspects later.
She also relayed some key advice that her advisor had given her: essentially, it’s natural to pivot many times while you’re working on a project like this, but keep in mind that every pivot has to pivot around something. There’s a central point there, and once you’ve identified that nucleus things will start falling into place.
Finally, Nikki described the thesis process as the act of walking into a forest, picking some exotic berries, and bringing them back to display to others. This framing removed some of the agency, and thus the pressure, from the task at hand. If my job is to release the sculpture that is already locked within the block of marble, rather than to create it from nothing, I can relax in the fiction of believing that it’s already there. (I once had a high school math teacher who congratulated each of us, on the first day of class, for our A+ grades. They were ours to lose.)
My pivot point, it turned out, was the street grid of the City of New York (yeah, cartography pedants, I know — that’s a polyline, not a coordinate). As I progressed, I realized how directly my projects over the past two years — and even in the years before I entered the program — had revolved around the streets of this city.
An early example of this was a project I developed before I entered the program, called Parkour. Parkour is a visualization tool for alternate-side parking regulations in New York City. It takes an address and plots it on a map, then color-codes every street within a thousand-foot radius by the time and day that street-sweeping regulations on that block elapse.
Parkour was my first experiment with location data and mapping APIs. It was an effort to leverage this data to improve a frustrating and commonplace aspect of life in New York — circling the block looking for a parking spot. I wanted to translate local knowledge — the fact that the perfect moment to grab a parking spot in this town is precisely when the street sweeping restrictions on that block have elapsed — into an actionable, at-a-glance utility. After all, this is something that every New Yorker with a car thinks about once or twice a week, but it’s a really tough thing to optimize.
Later, once I’d entered the program, I worked on two more mapping projects, Thither (with Marcelo Méjia Cobo) and Yonder (with Marcelo and Nic Barajas). Both of these were efforts to reimagine how pedestrians could experience the city and think differently about “optimizing” their commutes. Thither provided the most interesting route available, rather than the quickest route (I shamelessly scraped waypoint data from a fantastic site called Atlas Obscura), and Yonder focused on letting users chart their own courses by providing a compass rose fixed to nearby landmarks.
I also worked on a location-based physical computing project called Stinkgo around this time. Stinkgo is a Raspberry Pi-powered, GPS-enabled wearable that vibrates whenever you walk too close to a ginkgo tree. (Its data comes from the most recent NYC tree census.) It does this because ginkgo trees drop grotesque-smelling berries on the sidewalk every fall, which get mashed underfoot. And they’re among New York’s most common street tree species!
All of these experiments set the tone for what ultimately became Nearbuy. I knew, already, that I loved finding little ways to change the behavior of pedestrians, drivers, and other users of public spaces. And I’d been reading all about creating healthy cities. I just hadn’t yet put these things together.