Thesis Blog

Week 16: Final Prototype and Presentation

Concept Statement: 

I am working on making a physical data visualization that shows the impact sea level rise and extreme weather events will have on NYC in the near future. I plan on using organic materials that will be manipulated by human data over time to reveal the new shape of NYC in the near future.  My goal with this project is to re-create the visceral and emotional recreation we feel when visiting the site of a disaster zone or a location where a traumatic event occurred. 

My audience is anyone who call New York City home, either currently or in the past. 

The Prototype:

In the 2020s NYC could see as many 245,000 climate change refugees if a significant weather event occurred. According to NYC Opendata, rising sea levels, extended rain periods and increasingly severe storms could leave NYC exceptionally vulnerable to serious flooding in the next decade. This project explore what that future could look like. 

The goal of this prototype is to test the form and lay the foundation for putting the data in 3D, as well as testing what type of human data should be layered into the model to provide context and meaning around the issue. 

What is it?

A layered cast acrylic model with two versions. One that shows the remaining land mass of Manhattan and one that show the layered volumetric heights of the flood. The acrylic layers are broken out into current base flood levels based on topography, while the reflective layer reveals the predictive model of what will flood in the 2020s. Additionally, I used LED matrixes that show daily subway ridership to help contextualize traffic flow in flooded areas and visualize how data will pass through the physical models. 

Remaining land mass prototype


Volumetric flood heights prototype

LEDs show how additional data layers pass through the physical model

LEDs show the daily subway ridership for the most flooded neighborhoods to help show how the human impact and provide context. 

Testing Feedback:
From Users:
  • the remaining land mass prototype was more powerful and intuitive 
  • the LED subway ridership didn’t provide enough context
  • Want to see more complex data 
  • See how many inches each layer represents 
  • Strong reaction to seeing how much certain areas will flood
  • Would like to see specific landmarks 
  • Enjoyed interacting and changing the acrylic models themselves 
  • Would prefer to see change over time 

From Crits:

  • Bridge the loneliness and messiness of the watercolor data viz prototype with the preciseness of the current map 
  • Find way to show change over time 
  • Bring in human element and additional data to add complexity
  • draw people in by asking questions, use more abstract and metaphoric data to replace the LEDs


Future iteration:

My next iteration will use organic material and use data to control water or heat that will manipulate and degrade the materials over time to reveal the remaining shape of NYC, as well as the areas that will be flooded. 



Week 10-1: High-Res Prototype Presentation (3rd Prototype)

Link to interactive map of NYC Open Data 2020s Flood map

Use two fingers to zoom in and change the angle to reveal the 3D map of the buildings and flood layers.

To make the interactive map I used the geojson files on sea level rise in the 2020s from NYC Opendata. I then broke the data out into colored layers that represented the various degrees that neighboods by inches. The level varied between 12 – 31 inches. For this prototype, I separated it out into 6 layers, so it could be easily visualized in the map.

Prototype 3: 3D map with 2020s and 2050s flood data


Week 8-2: Pre-mortem Disaster Plan

Daniel Pink’s quick overview of the premortem exercise .  A Pre-moretem exercise for anticipating possible pitfalls in a large or long-term project.
10 min possible disaster exercise:
1. Reflect on what went wrong. Make a list of believable reasons for the project’s failure.
  • No idea on what to make for next prototype
    • start with specific part of project to test or explore
  • It doesn’t have a clear purpose
    • must make publishable video in December and in May for publication
    • Write clear plan
    • Find the person who is most critical and can cut through the crap well in their feedback
    • Publish project – hold yourself accountable 
    • focus on essentials and not visuals
  • It does not technically work
    • Dedicate specific time period to learning C++, Python and ml5
  • Failure to reach intended audience
    • Test with users!
    • speak with experts 
  • Generally confusing project or makes me unhappy
    • It fails to convey a message
    • I don’t like working on it anymore
    • I don’t know what I am trying to achieve
  • Not all aspects of project are finished or developed in time
    • Constantly show project to new people who haven’t seen project before 
  • Does not help anyone plan for sea level rise or raise awareness
    1. Prove that you have the potential to continue 
    2. Should be a sellable pitch via high-level prototype, presentation and write-up
2. 3 specific actions to avoid disaster.
  • Clear schedule of dedicated time to work on project without distractions
  • 1 pager with clear project overview, technical specs, timeframe and schedule
  • User testing plan integrated into schedule
  • Take breaks! Walk away when needed

Week 8-1: Prototype 2 Reflection

1. Write out the design values of the prototype: What do you want the other person to feel/think/do? Why do these things matter to you?

Idea: Print mini data viz stickers and place them on the property windows of real estate films. The stickers will use the exact address of the property and be placed on the listing, revealing the amount of sea level rise and flooding that property will experience in the next 50 years.

  • Feeling: Gage reactions to information, create a sensation of surprise or incite an emotional reaction
  • Goal: See how people react by setting up cameras an observing
  • Priorities: Gaining insight into the reactions of everyday people on the street, especially in relation to specific properties
Prototype 2- Real Estate Window Takeover

Week 7-1: Prototype 2 Plan and testing 

Lower East Side
  • The residents of 80 Rutgers on Lower East Side
  • Making climate change data accessible and personalized
  • Creating an empowerment tool with the data
  • Test use case
  • The data we compile about flood risk, sea level and the future will be understood and wanted by the residents
  • 80 Rutgers residents will be interested and want to use the personal data
  • They will want to use the data visualization as an activism tool for “guerilla-style” takeovers using personal data and posters
What it is:
  • Using NYC’s Open data on elevation and potential inundation maps, as well as FloodIQ’s predictions to map out key data specific to 80 Rutgers
  • Make a personalized visualization and poster print-out from the data that can be used as a grassroots awareness tool

Week 6: Prototype 1 Reflection

Audio interview on the Lower East Side:

For my first “paper prototype” I planned on making a low-res data visualization with open-source flood map data from Open Data NYC. However, as I began to map out a prototype, I realized that it would be pointless to make something without figuring out my audience and going to speak with them first.

So for this exercise I focused on audience.

Target audience: New York residents with the highest flood risk over the next 30 years with a focus on public housing and low-income communities.

Goal: To speak with residents to help inform my prototyping process in the coming weeks

To get a better understanding of what I could make and how I should test it, I went to the East Broadway subway stop where significant flooding occurred during Hurricane Sandy and where there are many public housing buildings. There I spoke with Jodi and Maria who not only explained the horrors they experienced during the hurricane, but also the deep feelings of frustration and abandonment they felt in the aftermath.

Jodi, who has been a resident of the building I visited gave me a first-hand account of what had happened to the area over the last 20 years that she had lived there. Additionally, I learned key pieces of information about the instability of site and the city’s future plans to bring in high-end housing.

In preparing for the next prototype:

The questions I wish to add to my research are:

  1. What are the gaps in what we know about climate change in NYC?
  2. How can I empower audiences with data?
  3. What do at-risk people currently know and want?

What is the issue/need/interest/problem you want to explore?

Exploring how data can education people about their current risk level and also be used as a tool for empowerment, potentially as a grassroots awareness campaign or movement.

How can I explore how current data models (i.e. category system in hurricane assessment or 30 year-old FEMA flood maps) are misleading?

What prototyping methods might be appropriate?

Creating a low-res data visualization that can be shown to NYC residents at risk to gage their reaction, current level of understanding and assess their individual needs.

Week 5: Presentation of Domain and Critical Review

Domain Research and Concept presentation Review

Here is a link to the presentation.

The presentation began with an overview of how I became interested in climate change in NYC, which started with an augmented reality application I developed for an NYC Media Lab fellowship called See Level. See Level explores how Governors Island has been engineered to fight climate change.

See Level created for NYC Media Lab, Havas and Governors Island

When I demoed the application, hands shot up all over the audience but not with questions about the augmented reality or the application itself, but whether I would make this to expand to their neighborhood in NYC and most

importantly- were they safe?

This question sparked my interest climate change in NYC and developing a tool that residents could use to educate and prepare themselves. In researching the project I started with Hurricane Sandy and discovered a lot of information about how unprepared NYC was for the hurricane, including using extremely outdated FEMA flood maps that left many citizens unprepared for the disaster.

FEMA Updated NYC Flood map, 2013

After the Hurricane Sandy the city updated the flood maps to include a much larger amount of the city is at high-risk and will continue to be due to climate change. I researched the various task forces and measures the city has taken since Hurricane Sandy which primarily include assessment and data gathering. There has been very little implementation of changes or protections to date.  With that in mind I decided to move away from the scary number and focus on qualitative research to focus on how I could best tell this story and what might be missing from the picture.

I began this qualitative research process by using “design artifacts” meant to help me think outside the box and examine new, alternative ways to approach the issue.

I began my creating water journal, where I took pictures and wrote down a few words for every interaction I had with water in my day. The exercise revealed the surprising and conflicting nature of our relationship with water. For example,  I drink water every morning that until recently came out of the Gowanus Canal, a body of water that sits next to my apartment and is also a Superfund site for countless toxic chemicals dumped there over the past century.  However, I almost never think of this despite walking by it nearly every day.

Recording my water interactions for a “Water Journal”

My second artifact contained a meditative reflection using self-recorded audio from various friends who went through Hurricane Sandy in 2012. In listening to their audio, I realized that their stories varied greatly from boredom to being truly frightened and witnessing events that resembled an apocalypse. This process helped me understand the great divide between at-risk populations in low-lying areas and areas that are safe. It also made me realize how at risk low-income neighborhoods are in places like the Lower East Side, where future sea level rise is predicted to be the worst.

Finally, for my third artifact I created a watercolor data visualization of the future predictions of sea level rise for the next 100 years and the low-income neighborhoods in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Watercolor data visualization of the 100 year flood map and low-income neighborhoods

The process of making the watercolor data visualization triggered some very important questions that I had been overlooking, specifically:

  1. What are the unforseen consequences of flooding? Especially in places like the Gowanus, a Superfund site?
  2. How can we build protection around such a powerful environmental forces like sea water, which is often beyond our control?
  3. Who stands to lose from sea level rise? Who stands to benefit?

Ultimately, all three artifacts opened up key ideas and questions that I need to creatively explore and add to my thesis to make it effective and meaningful.  It can be difficult to break free of your mind’s bias or predetermined associations or responses and this process of creating artifacts forced me to break out of my typical thought patterns and explore alternative routes.

Week 2 – 2: Secondary Research and domains


Climate change in NYC

  • Google search (general)
    • Rolling Stone – big piece on threat of global warming to NYC, link here
    • NYT – Tidal Marshes and using bioengineering as a preventative tool. Article here
    • NYC Vision- City of New York’s vision for a levee expanded park off the coast. Link here
    • NYC Gov – complimentary programs to accompany “The East Side Coastal Resiliency Project” link here
  • Journal

Wine and Multi-sensory Data Viz

  • Google search on new topics
  • Book – How climate is changing the types of grapes we grow. Link here
  • MIT – “Undark” magazine on climate change and wine. Article here
  • Millennials and wine– how millennials drink wine differently. Article here
  1. Anthropomorphic Analysis: Use human population measurement data to check the coverage and suitability of the design solution for the target user group. This helps to identify a representative group of people for testing design concepts and evaluating the general usability of product details.  This method will benefit my research by helping narrow down my target user group and studying the environment they are in and how they might interact with what I create. 
  2. Brainstorming: A creative and interactive method used in face-to-face and online group working sessions to generate new ideas around a specific area of interest. Brainstorming with some people in my subject matter around the specific topic am I working on. This would provide invaluable insights that I can’t predict or anticipate alone. 
  3. Cross-Cultural Comparisons-Use personal or published accounts to reveal differences in behaviors and artifacts between national or other cultural groups. This helps you to understand various cultural factors and the implications for their projects when designing for unfamiliar or global audiences.
  4. Error Analysis- List all the things that can go wrong when using a product or having an experience. This is a good way to understand how design mitigates or contributes to inevitable human errors and other failures. Thinking through all the possible misuses of something you are creating is enormously helpful. We often start building ideas or projects on assumptions and these assumptions often compound as you move deeper into the interactions. In thinking through the problems first, you can identify possible pitfalls in the early stages.
  5. Expert Interviews- Interviews with experts in the research domain. This is always a must for any project in order to get a sense of the topic and areas that should be considered when designing around an issue or problem that you are trying to solve. For me, it will be very important to speak with leaders in the field since I am dealing with such a far-reaching topic that encompasses requires a lot of scientific expertise.

Week 2 – 1: Creating Project Inquiries 

We went over the following questions to help us identify areas of research that we need to focus on and potentially expose holes or problems that we might encounter with our initial idea concepts.

Here are the exercise questions we did:

Design Question & Core Attributes prompt: 

A design question, artistic investigation or core uncertainty is something that can describe a research domain and motivate creative practice.

Please consider:

  • What kinds of explorations motivate your creative practice?
  • What conceptual, aesthetic, and technical questions drive this project as a whole?
  • What are the core uncertainties of your investigation?
  • Are there key qualities that you would like your project to have, or that you’d like it’s user / audience to experience?
  1. Create one list of questions / investigations
  2. Create another list of qualities / values.
  3. Group the design questions as you see fit: in terms of concept, aesthetics, audience participation and technical means of creation
  4. Rank in order of importance
  •       Who? (co-designers, collaborators, users, participants, audience)
  •       Where?
  •       When?
  •       Why? (are you making this, why now, why for these people)
  •       Why you? (what is your unique POV, contribution, access etc)

Core attributes:

  • What are key qualities, aesthetics, attributes or adjectives you would like to be associated with the work?
  • What are the tensions, contradictions, gaps, surprises; or the unusual juxtapositions, ironies or patterns you’ve encountered in your research and making?
  • What kind of experience do you want people to have who engage with this work?
  • Ultimately, what problem are you trying to solve (if design-oriented)? What are you trying express, convey, explore or facilitate (if art-focused)?


In answering these questions and posing new ones, I was able to determine areas that I wasn’t focusing on like audience and problems with previous projects on my idea. Additionally, it helped me condense my thoughts on what direction I am taking. For example, I found myself re-visiting how I might use data to drive my experience.

Some other areas I found myself lacking direction for:

  • Who my audience is?
  • How my audience responds to my topic- are they interested?
  • what are the limitations of my project given the timeframe?
  • How can I create something using the tools that I am most interested in? Will this work for my audience?

Basically, I need to identify my assumptions about my audience and research their in interest in my topics. I think this may be the best starting point for my research, in addition to researching previous work done on my topic.

This exercise also revealed differences in problems that I will encounter with my two, very different topic ideas.

  1. I know my audience for the NYC climate change idea is very interested and motivated from previous work done, but would i target specific population within this 8 million person population? If so, how do these populations differ and will they be equally interested?
  2. The audience for my wine project is completely unknown and very broad. I do not know if there is any interest from millennials or people of different ethnic backgrounds in wine. I am not entirely sure which population I would target, much less their interest in the topic. So, this question of audience play a much more significant role here
  3. Answering the most basic design question of what my project will solve or provide? Is also a very large, looming question that identified as a fundamental starting point for my conceptual research

Week 1 – 2: Concept brainstorm

Our sticky note concept brainstorm that that used three layers topics. We started with primary domains, then drilled down to concepts and precedents.

  1. Primary domains
  2. 3 concepts for each domain
  3. 3 precedents for each concept

In this process I discovered two areas of interest that I had not been previously considering and came up with three fundamental questions that I needed to address moving forward:

  1. Am I making an idea or product?
  2. Who is the audience?
  3. Is this a fun, experimental project or something that expands my current body of work?

Week 1 – 1 : Mindmap and Concept Ideas

Climate change mindmap

First mindmap for thesis ideation process. Focused on broad topics to find trends or interest in certain branches and pose questions on areas that I might have in terms of research.

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