The typical solution to improve traffic-related accidents is to edit city infrastructure: to put up better street signs, redesign intersections, or stencil the command “LOOK!” along curbsides in white paint, as New York City’s Department of Transportation (DOT) has done. A new app, however, introduces a design that improves traffic safety that isn’t built into the environment but rather simply into the palm of your hand. Look Up, developed by Ekene Ijeoma, alerts you as you approach intersections, vibrating or displaying a notification on your phone screen. Conceived with much more than just safety in mind, Ijeoma describes it as “a participatory public art app that prompts New Yorkers to look away from their phones and into the street intersections to embrace the diversity and engage in the serendipity of the city.”
Look Up, which is currently available only on Android as a Live Wallpaper — essentially, an app that runs as a wallpaper — uses crash injury and fatalities data from DOT’s Vision Zero street safety program combined with your GPS coordinates to identify nearby crossings. (It will be available for iOS soon.) You may say that such a tool may provide people with more reason to keep their eyes glued to their screens, but Ijeoma says that some people who have downloaded the app tell him they are actually not using their phones as much anymore, as they are more aware of the habit. Anyway, especially since we’re now living in a Pokémon Go world, it’s not as if people will quit staring at their devices anytime soon. While Look Up is also available only in New York City, Ijeoma intends to add more cities as options soon.
Look Up’s visuals are simple but effective: if you’re on your home screen as you near an intersection, a background display counts down, in feet, how far away you are from potential collisions. Animated concentric circles that Ijeoma describes as “eyeballs” will then pop up, accompanying vibrations, when you reach a crossing. If you’re using another app, you receive a banner notification. Depending on your preference (or personal phone habits), you may set the app to alert you at every one to three intersections, or even at random. Look Up also condenses the stream of numerical data from DOT into information that is more quickly grasped through tactile and visual cues: Ijeoma has created an “energy score” that distributes the frequency of crashes at intersections along a scale of one to five; the higher the score, the more vibrations you feel, and the more rings appear in the colorful “eyeballs.” Ijeoma has also designed Look Up for use by drivers and cyclists in addition to pedestrians, acknowledging all the various interactions that may occur at intersections.
Ultimately, the app focuses on nurturing these human interactions. Although a grand ambition, Ijeoma’s hope is that Look Up tears down what he describes as “digital walls” and creates spaces of opportunity for people to take a break from their electronics, reconnect with their surroundings, or perhaps even say hello to a stranger.
“It was more about how you can utilize this network of streets and intersections that actually connect people in a physical way,” he told Hyperallergic. “I’m trying to create a street-based etiquette.
“I started thinking of safety at first then about how the project should be about empathy — and then safety becomes inherent,” he said. “I think it’s more an issue about empathy for the different types of transportation and the people behind them. If we were looking up, we would see and acknowledge each other and maybe start to value people, whether they are on a bike, on a car, or on foot. To be able to share the city and its space, we need to have more empathy.”
Visit the Look Up website for more information.