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Bicycling Counts: Interview with Visual Storyteller Arlene Birt

Posted by   |  Date June 1, 2012  |  Comments 0

Bicycling Counts” is a public mobile art installation along Minneapolis bike paths. The project is a large-scale projection of the energy and financial savings generated by bicyclists, assuming they would otherwise be driving a car. The tally of savings is updated in real time with each passing rider. The first location will be this Saturday June 2 at Mill City Museum. Follow #BicyclingCounts on Twitter for announcements of the installation locations each following day, culminating on Saturday June 9.

When communicating data to a nontechnical audience, it’s tempting to oversimplify. Social and environmental stories are often interdisciplinary and complex. Making them more accessible isn’t always about minimizing the number of data points: the challenge is to contextualize and organize them, enabling the audience to understand and explore the information. Successful data visualization can help scale down the “big picture” of sustainability and inspire behavior change. Understanding their individual impact informs people about the potential consequences and benefits of their actions. 

Arlene Birt is a visual storyteller whose work illustrates the global social and environmental implications of everyday objects and lifestyle choices. According to her artist’s statement, she is “driven by the idea that when people become engaged with –and can interact with– the stories behind their purchases and daily rituals, they can create a personal connection, from which they can understand their own role in social and environmental sustainability.” She’s partnering with CEE for Bicycling Counts. I had the opportunity to interview her about bicycling and information design.  

Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today! What is your own relationship with bicycling?
Arlene: I bike pretty much everywhere (when it gets cold I take the bus). I don’t have a car, I really enjoy bicycling. It’s a calming way to get around and makes you feel good. It can take a little more planning sometimes. But Minneapolis has such a good network of bike trails that it’s easy to get to different locations in the city once you’re in the habit.

Anna: What do you see as the main obstacles preventing more people from bicycling? 
Arlene: There’s such a variety, it depends so much on the individual. By providing extra information, I hope Bicycling Counts will contribute to behavior change. Maybe it’s a bit too strong to say that the installation will change individual lifestyles; it’s more about providing clarity and transparency to the information.

Anna: Since you split your time between Minneapolis and Belgium, could you say a bit about how bicycling is different here than in Europe?
Arlene: Europe has a lot more bike infrastructure already built in. In the US, cities were built for cars, in Europe the cities are old Medieval centers designed before the car.  

And it varies by country: when comparing Minneapolis and Belgium, I think the level of infrastructure is similar. Minneapolis really has a good network compared to the rest of the US and even some places in Europe. I think Belgium has better connections outside of the urban centers, but the cities there are much closer together.You could almost bike across the country in a day!

Anna: Where did you get the inspiration for your Bicycling Counts project in Malmo, Sweden
Arlene: I was in Sweden for a two and a half month artist residency. I spent the first month interviewing people and finding out what was going on in the city. I was interested in their existing bicycling counters that recorded and displayed only the total number of cyclists. I thought, “this is nice, but it would be interesting to relate the overall count to its social and ecological impact.” So that information paired with my desire to celebrate bicycling inspired the project.

Anna: Why did the city set up those counters?
Arlene: It’s a system I’ve seen in a few cities in Europe, set up to make bicycling more visible. Some cities have hidden counters. Minneapolis has a couple to track data of how many cyclists pass, but they’re not visible nor in real time. The city reports those statistics.  They also do physical counts of the number of cyclists, then use that information to determine where most of our bicycle traffic is and where to invest in infrastructure or make changes.

Anna: How did Malmo residents respond to your installation?
Arlene: Positively. That installation was a prototype. It was temporary and there was a lot of good feedback. We projected on a public graffiti wall so it was like having “light graffiti.” That project took place in winter, during the shortest days of the year. It gets very dark and so the projections were easy to see. That’s a challenge for our summer project here in Minneapolis.

Anna: Why do you think Bicycling Counts is a good fit for Minneapolis?
Arlene: We have a strong bicycling culture. I think the project will help people become aware of what it means that an increasing number of people are choosing to bicycle in Minneapolis. I want to provide another layer of information to show how the increase translates to ecological and social impact - and celebrate this fact. 

Anna: How do you hope people will respond to the Minneapolis project?
Arlene: I hope the bicyclists that see it and are counted can join in a sense of pride and maybe for the first time see specifically how each bicycle trip that they make contributes to society.

For less regular cyclists, I hope that this becomes another piece of information to add to their own knowledge of the benefits of bicycling and will encourage them to increase the amounts of trips they take by bicycle.

Anna: How do you see the role of data visualization and information design in sustainability?
Arlene: This is an exciting period. So much information is being collected, so much data is available to us, and interest in sustainability has picked up in last few years - and it’s continuing in that direction. Data visualization helps us see the data and the meaning behind the it, then to make it visible to people. In terms of sustainability, information design can help us put available data into context. Hopefully a more clear picture of the information can emerge to help people understand the their own role in sustainability and this can motivate people toward positive behavior change.

Anna:Who is your target audience?
Arlene: It depends on the project. I try to connect with people who aren’t already involved in sustainability, helping them understand the basics. For Bicycling Counts, we’re reaching out to Twin Cities residents and passing cyclists that may or may not have an understanding of sustainability. The installation is not specifically about environmental impact, so it has a more general audience.

Anna: What other everyday choices and stories would you like to visualize or see visualized? 
Arlene: So many! 

I’m really interested (and this is always on the back burner) in exploring what CO2 means. Even for those of us who work with sustainability and calculate carbon footprints, it’s very difficult to visualize and make sense of. We talk about saving so many tons of CO2, but what is a ton of CO2? We breathe out CO2, trees take in CO2; it’s a very complex natural and industrial process. How can we tell that story? It’s something I would love to do. 

I would love to see every object and action in the world connected to social and environmental sustainability. That’s going to take a long time. And it’s going to take more than me!

If you’re in town for Twin Cities Bike Walk Week, be sure to ride past our counter and see the impact of your trip! You can follow #BicyclingCounts on Twitter for updates and installation locations and read this i.e. post for more background on the project. 

Related Innovation Exchange project:

Bicycling Counts

Related posts:

Bicycling Counts: Official Counts

Bicycling Counts: Calculating the Impact of Minneapolis Cyclists

Graphic credit: Arlene Birt


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