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.

DTPR Design Patterns
Version 1

The first draft of the outputs for this project are now available on Github.

There are four major components: icons, a signage system, and a digital channel for communication that, together, help visualize and convey a taxonomy of key concepts.

The signage system answers the most important questions that were identified through the co-design and user research process: the purpose, the accountable entity, and whether the technology collects identifiable information. We decided to convey each of these concepts in an icon that would be placed within a hexagon. We chose hexagons because, as a visual cue, they are not widely used today in public realm signage to represent other concepts. They are also easy to combine together in different ways, enabling some close concepts to live together visually.

One hexagon conveys the purpose of the technology; another, the logo of the entity responsible for the technology; and a third contains a QR code that takes the individual to a digital channel where they can learn more. In situations where identifying information is collected, a privacy-related colored hexagon would also be displayed.

The image depicts various hexagons, some black, some blue and some yellow. Each hexagon contains an icon, e.g. 'Voice Identifiable' or 'Videos De-identified'
The visual system for DTPR: icons denoting purpose (in black), technology type (blue for de-identified, yellow for identifiable), the accountable organization and a link to a digital channel to learn more.

For a more detailed overview of how the signage system works, please see our blog post on the project.

We’re looking for partners who want to advance the use and adoption of these standards in the public realm. Please get in touch at dtpr-hello@sidewalklabs.com.

The image displays three smartphone screens, each one displaying information about the extended visual system.
The digital channel prototype for DTPR provides much more information than can be shown on a physical sign. The extended visual system conveys concepts organized into three categories: Purpose & Technology (in hexagons), Data & Processing (in circles), and Storage & Access (in boxes)

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 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 gave an overview of the project’s status, shared a synthesis of the work-in-progress so far, and gathered feedback from collaborators.

March 4 Shareout

NOON - 1 PM EST

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.

March 12 Shareout

NOON - 1 PM EST

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.

March 22 Shareout

NOON - 1 PM EST

On March 22nd, we reviewed the output from our user testing session with GRIT Toronto, and shared a new iteration of the design work for physical signage, as well as early concepts for a digital information channel.

April 1
Pre-Release Review

NOON - 1 PM EST

On April 1st, we reviewed 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.

April 8
Design Patterns Release

NOON - 1 PM EST

We gave an overview of the designs we plan to release: the icons and visual system, the taxonomy and the themes they represent, as well as a prototype of the digital channel that works with and supports those icons. We discussed with attendees where they would be able to access the designs for their own use and implementation, as well as discussed ideas to advance further testing and adoption.

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 gave an overview of the technologies already in use throughout the public realm today, and asked participants to let us know what questions they had about those technologies and the data that is collected. We used cards to prompt conversations about people’s thoughts and feelings around the ethics of data collection. These were then clustered into themes that the group deemed important for the prototypes and design concepts to convey.

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

  • Card from the codesign session: Should you be able to access data that is being collected around you? And if so, how should you be able to access it?
  • Card from the codesign session: You're a schoolteacher responsible for taking a class of 30 12-year-olds on a day trip to a museum
  • Card from the codesign session: A question I have is can they tell my body from someone else's?

These are some examples of the outputs we co-created 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.