Sensing Cityscapes: Sensors, Cities, Policies/Basic Protocols for New Media

An Interdisciplinary Graduate Methods Course

Fall 2014
Architecture 229 / Art Practice 229 / New Media 202

Instructors: Greg Niemeyer (Art Practice, Berkeley Center for New Media) and Ronald Rael (Architecture)

Thursday 2-5PM

Course Description

One of the oldest continuous human records is the water level of the Nile. Measured in a special edifice, the Nilometer provided many successions of Egyptian governments with the basic data to determine ideal times for farmers along the river to plant and harvest. With new media tools, we can measure ever more aspects of our interactions with natural and built environments, which could be described as urban metabolisms. But whether we can support better experiences for urban citizens with better measurements depends on many technical, political, cultural and design factors. How can we scale data from tiny sensors to individual people and to regional policies? In this methods course we will study the long chain of references which connect ground truth to data, data to information, information to people, and people to actions. We will address key questions about sensing the city including:

  • Who is watching and why?
  • What data is relevant to whom and in which timeframes?
  • How can we collect and store data?
  • How can we validate such data?
  • How can we share and distribute data fairly?
  • For whom will data yield actionable outcomes?
  • Can the impact of actionable outcomes be validated with new data?
  • How do data support or challenge existing city policies?
  • How can designs and even policies respond to data?

We will address these questions conceptually and practically, as we follow the circulating references from need to data, and from data to action through applied studies. We will learn to make use of both technical and theoretical tools to create a common ground of sensing, and to make invisible dynamics of urban metabolisms visible to those who are affected the most. We will study existing data sources from airnow to nextbus, learn to connect to existing data streams, design, build and test new devices and interfaces, all with the objective of alleviating risk, stress, waste, and neglect in urban settings. All along, we will critically consider the limits of optimization and data-driven decision making, the conditions of inclusion and exclusion created with any technology, and the impact of data on intangible human experiences.

Through a suite of practical projects, the course introduces methods for retrieving and working with existing city data, investigating cities through surveys and mapping, generating data through digital sensing and ways of presenting data publicly. Project partners for this course are BART, EBALDC, the City of Berkeley, Youth Radio and

A slideshow on the course narrated by Prof. Niemeyer can be seen here.


The course will be taught by Ronald Rael and Greg Niemeyer. Rael has a background in ecological design at the intersection of architecture, art, digital design, culture, and the environment. Niemeyer has a background in new media art, sensing, networking and data visualization. Together, they will introduce participants to basic methods of urban mapping, sensing, and design. Guest lecturers will include Eric Paulos (Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences/Berkeley Center for New Media) and Kimiko Ryokai (I-School/Berkeley Center for New Media).


Sensing Cityscapes students presented their Pilot Urban Lights Projects to the City of San Leandro City Council during their December 1, 2014, meeting.

Read more about it here.
View the presentations below.