Designing for Digital Transparency in the Public Realm

This project seeks to facilitate the co-creation of prototypes that can advance digital transparency and enable agency in the world's public spaces.
Stack of tech-related cards and photos

Rating systems and design languages help generate understanding around complex issues and make information easily accessible. Nutrition labels help demystify the content of the foods we consume. Creative Commons logos quickly convey the key elements of their copyright licenses. Universal symbol signs help us effectively navigate through transportation hubs anywhere in the world.

With cities increasingly embracing digital technology in the built environment, we believe people should be able to quickly understand how these technologies work and the purposes they serve. We believe that creating a unified visual language will be a critical starting point, and that digital tools could help people to follow up and learn more.

We have convened expert groups in cities around the world, co-hosting co-design sessions and holding online meetings known as “shareouts,” to collaborate and prototype an initial set of open standards for digital transparency in the public realm.

Sidewalk Labs’ goal is to make the resulting standards, as well as all the workshop activities and materials that generated them, publicly and freely available for others to adopt, use, and build upon. In this way, we hope to advance this important conversation around digital literacy and help people understand the digital infrastructures that, while invisible, permeate the public realm and impact our lives.

As this project progresses, we’re looking for partners who have a mission that aligns with creating transparency around digital technology in the public realm. If you’re interested in working with us to advance the use and adoption of these transparency standards, please get in touch at We’d love to work with you in this effort.

Sensors have become a part of our daily lives

CCTVs. Traffic cameras. Transit card readers. Bike lane counters. Wi-Fi access points. Occupancy sensors that activate lights or open doors.

These are all examples of how digital technologies can integrate into our physical world to help make our public spaces more comfortable, responsive, and efficient. Look around you as you go about your day, and you’ll start to see how much sensing and data collection infrastructure is already all around you — but there is very little transparency around what data is being collected, by whom, and for what purpose.

What if there was a better way? What if you could quickly communicate what technology was in use in the public realm in a way that was transparent and clear without being overwhelming? At Sidewalk, we have initiated this rapid prototyping project to imagine what digital transparency in the public realm could look like.

These are some examples of technology in the public realm. You see these every day, but there are no great ways to learn about what they do and why.

Stack of tech-related cards and photos

Shareout Materials

At each of the Shareouts, we will give an overview of the project’s status, share a synthesis of the work-in-progress so far, and gather feedback from collaborators. To join an upcoming Shareout please email us.

March 4 Shareout


In our first web critique, we shared the synthesis of the Toronto event and our design work based on what we learned there. We covered the themes that emerged, the icons that were generated, and also some concepts around a digital channel for learning more.

  • Slides are here
  • Recording of the shareout is here
  • Synthesis to date is here

March 12 Shareout


In our March 12th shareout, we covered synthesis from the London, New York, and San Francisco co-design sessions. We also shared some iterations based on the previous feedback from the last shareout. Finally, GRIT Toronto shared their inclusive approach to user testing the concepts with a representative group of Torontonians.

  • Slides are here
  • Recording of the shareout is here
  • Synthesis to date is here

March 22 Shareout


On March 22nd, we’ll review the output from our user testing session as well as share more advanced thinking on how physical signage and digital channels could help people learn more about technology in their environment.

April 1
Pre-Release Review


On April 1st, we’ll review the draft icon set and digital channels that we propose to release for final feedback and guidance, which we will use to iterate the design in preparation for release.

Stack of tech-related cards and photos

Co-design Sessions

At each of these charrettes, we brought together a cross-cutting set of experts from design, data privacy, and the public realm to:

  • Define the key themes (a taxonomy) that are important to communicate in the public realm
  • Develop concepts for communication systems (such as icons) and experiences (information tools such as apps) where these themes can apply

At the workshops, we give an overview of the technologies already in use throughout the public realm today, and ask participants to let us know what questions they have about those technologies and the data that is collected. We use cards to prompt conversations about people’s thoughts and feelings around the ethics of data collection. These are then clustered into themes that the group deems important for the prototypes and design concepts to convey.

These are some examples of the cards that we have used in the sessions.

  • Cards from the codesign session
  • Cards from the codesign session
  • Cards from the codesign session

These are some examples of the outputs we co-create in our sessions.

Panorama photograph of co-design related cards and photos

A full set of the materials used for the co-design charrettes

Design Principles for our sessions

Provide transparency

We want to help people increase their awareness of how digital technology in the public realm works and give them avenues to learn more or follow up.

Outcomes not outputs

More signs are often not the answer. As visual noise increases, less meaningful information actually gets across. We want to develop a way to know whether signage or channels are working for people; we need that feedback so we can improve the design over time.

Offer communication and utility

People may want to know about what data is being collected around them, but they also might want to know how to use that data or even to make better use of the environment itself. How might signage be a starting point for helping people better navigate and utilize their surroundings?

Blend digital and physical

We are in a unique position to consider how people move from a digital to a physical medium and back. This transition should feel useful and coherent.

Design for adaptation

We know this is just a first take, and we intend for others to build on this work.

All photos are credited to Sidewalk Labs.