Data Sense: Facilitating Citizen Sensemaking of Smart Environments through Augmented Urban Experiences

Spring 2020

Masters Graduate Thesis:

The student initiated final project is undertaken in the last two semesters of the program, and is in part a culmination of graduate study that synthesizes previous coursework and investigations. Students are responsible for defining the area of investigation, for the research that informs their investigation, for organizing the study and its methods, and for documenting the results.

Link to Full Document ︎
Link to Pandemic Symposium ︎


Problem Space:

Smart Cities are characterized by information flows among humans and ubiquitous sensing technologies (known as the internet of things). These sensors ere embedded in mobile devices and the built environment. While IoT’s affordances aim to make life easier for its citizens, its invisibility, and reliance on human data raises issues of transparency and ethics for the future of IoT design.

Designing for transparency is difficult when sensors and data are hard for users to conceptualize (Lupton, 2017). Information flows are dynamic and volatile, and are fragmented and translated across physical-digital spaces. The idea of locating, finding, and interacting with sensors and data in situ could perhaps render them transparent in ways that acknowledge their spatial qualities to help bridge the digital-physical divide.

Primary Research Question:

How can the design of a mixed reality experience facilitate transparency of IoT sensors and data through citizen engagement with its infrastructure?


An extensive literature review helped formulate my research question, argument, justification, methods, and findings. A precedent analysis and case studies showcased design possibilities and loopholes. Observational studies utilizing the AEIOU framework of Hillsborough street informed the context of the investigation’s problem space. Research through Design encouraged the collection of evidence along the way to inform design decision. Interviews and surveys provided insight to craft a persona. Scenario building based on secondary research and observational studies helped contextualize the problem space and identify pain points. Rapid ideations and “what-if” explorations broadened my scope of possibilities early in the investigation and helped circumvent design fixation. A workshop with the sophomore class at NCSU revealed possibilities for design explorations is subquestion two. Persona Generating, Storyboards, Stakeholder Maps, Refined Scenarios: These User Experience design methods provided a contextual space to situate this investigation. Concept maps and visual studies provided visual confirmation and analysis of concepts. Prototyping brought the project into fruition. 

Theoretical Frameworks

This research is informed by several frameworks (Figure 4). Multi sensory Acts of Noticing, Data Sense, and Designing for Awareness of Shared Systems. The primary framework being Acts of Noticing structures each subquestion and Ava’s journey through three stages of Noticing.

Multisensory Acts of Noticing is a framework to help humans shift perspective and gain insight into how systems function outside of our anthropocentric norm. Stages of noticing include three tactics: engagement, attunement, and expansion.

The DASS framework gives a structured and holistic view of how designers can implement awareness of information into the design of interactive and shared systems.

Smart citizenship is derived from literature covering aspects of citizen engagement. Smart citizenship does not refer to the cognitive capabilities of citizens; rather, it is a broader concept that encompasess an ethos of citizen agency through grassroots, bottom-up participatory design.

Data sense involves the entanglements of human senses with digital sensors in the act of sensemaking. This investigation is framed from the perspective of data sensemaking. It recognizes materiality of data as a lively thing distributed spatially and contextually in the digital–physical milieu of sensory embedded environment.


Studies are organized in the form of three subquestions that focus on different aspects of designing for awareness. Each subquestion addresses a tactic of noticing derived from the primary framework, The Acts of Noticing: engagement, attunement, and expansion.

Engagement is the shared physical experience of the environment
Attunement is the ability to sense the livelihoods of nonhuman collaborators
Expansion blurs the nature–culture division (Liu et al., 2018).

Persona + Senario

This investigation follows the persona AVA, (figure 2), a twenty-five year old college student “unaware pedestrian” as she commute to class over a course of time. While she has heard of the term “smart” she does not know if she lives in a smart city or not. She has grown up with digital technologies and rarely thinks about their mehanics. She fears and is convinced her phone listens to her speak sometimes and wonders about how the cloud works—but does not obsess over those unknowns.

Hillsborough Street, Raleigh, NC is typical of a college street in a medium–sized city. It is active and lively, populated with a variety of business, restaurants, coffee shops, bars, and pedestrian activity. On one end of the street is a traffic circle characterized by constant, transient motion. Embedded within this physical landscape are thousands of IoT sensors—sensors that are aiding Ava's journey (unbeknownst to her) as she walks to and from class. 

Study 1:

How can the design of multimodal interventions present initial touchpoints for the user to access IoT infrastructure over time and space

This study explores how an IoT sensor can be transparent through the design of multimodal, technological touchpoints in public space. These touchpoints vary in visibility, modality, location, and the type of information they provide. The result is a concept map that synthesizes these variables to deduce, where and when, these touchpoints should intervene. The idea of intervening is a way of creating friction—and can be a tactic to bring unaware pedestrians into contact with invisible systems.

These frictions range from evoking ambient, thinner interactions that are successful in provoking a sensory awareness of space, to explicit, thicker interactions that enable access to detailed information. They explore the effects of facilitating awareness and in indirect proximity to an IoT sensor. The former alters pedestrian routes while the latter engages the user with the sensor in situ.

Study 2:

How can the design of contextual layers of information translate IoT infrastructure’s functionality and intent?

This study explores contextual and expressive awareness of sensors and IoT data. It details how they can bring awareness to themselves in the environment through tactics that highlight, locate, describe, or simulate their mechanics and intent. It then explores the format in which the information can be given: overlaid text, hyperlinking to websites, providing detailed infographics. It also questions how sensors and data can be differentiated from each other and convey information that is aligned with their purpose—what they do, how they do it, how sensitive a sensor may be to a user.

This study proposes a data schema that can be applied in the design of data (and sensors). Metadata can be represented by tagging, nesting, or overlaying information on some form—this information can shift in hierarchy according to the user’s preferences. It explores how added motion can help translate data and sensors to the user and proposes that motion should be applied to sensors to show that they are “active” and “collecting data” and only to the data points when they are being interacted with.

The study suggests that the format in which information is presented should be related to its context (hyperlinking vs. infographic)—where would the user want to read thick information and where would they want to access it later. Lastly, it proposes that designers should consider how to privilege certain information types when designing for sensors that collect sensitive or anonymous information.

Study 3:

How can the design of applied interactions facilitate an embodied awareness of information while promoting user agency?

This study proposes that interactions are synonymous with embodied sensemaking in AR. As such, designers should prototype for embodied experiences as well as cognitive ones. Embodied experiences can facilitate a spatial and material understanding of IoT infrastructure through the placement of assets and applied interactions. A cluster of assets surrounding the user can provoke a sense of immersion, while distant and unreachable assets can initiate mobility and re-orientation. It discusses the downsides of embodied interactions such as cognitive and perceptual hindrances caused by distortion and resolution, viewpoint mismatching, and illegible displays of information (Olshannikova et al., 2015).


As a whole, the studies comprise a system in which an unaware pedestrian, Ava can come into contact with and engage with invisible IoT infrastructure. This sytem relies on touchpoints in the phyical environment (subquestion 1) and embofied interactions in AR (Subquestion 2). The scenario map (figure X) outlines her user journey. Figure X diagrams the system in its entirety. 


Findings from these studies suggest principles that potentially be used in designing for awareness or in the data and IoT domain: 

Designing for embodied sense making acknowledges the material, spatial, and embedded nature of digital information that can help bridge the digital-physical divide.

Leveraging IoT infrastructure agency through metaphor and enchantment. It is clear from substantial research that embedded sensors and data have a degree of agency and influence on human lives. And the way we render these things in the design of smart devices affects human perception and ways of relating to them. Enchantement can provoke awareness in ways that are not necessarily cute, or anthropomorphized—but them as agents in their own right.

By remaining invisible, discrete, and abstract, there will continue to be an imbalance of power between users and technological artifacts. Using More than Human theories as guiding frameworks can broaden solution possibilities in the design of complex systems—especially in the ideation process by approaching systems through alternative perspectives. Findings can then be framed from a user-centered perspective to make designs more viable and usable.

While the scope of this project is largely speculative, its content is of ethical concern for the future of IoT design. Should IoT infrastructure remain seamlessly invisible or provoke awareness through added friction? Does citizen right–to–know mean that users must seek out information themselves or that transparency is made evident through design? Maybe this issue will not be as pressing to the next generation of digital natives who are so embedded in digital infrastructure their cares and concerns are different from ours. But, I’d argue that it should be regarded as essential as usability testing in the design of IoT spaces. Citizens should have the choice to engage, care, or delete. Designing for awareness can facilitate just that.

Link to Full Document ︎ 
Link to Pandemic Symposium ︎

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