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connect / 2014

Trail City LA: Connecting the city through a community authored network of digitally enabled trails.

Idea submitted in the My LA2050 Maker Challenge by Interpretive Media Laboratory (IMLab)

To create a web-based tool for collective authoring of digitally-enhanced urban walking trails in partnership with LA-based community groups

Please describe yourself.

Collaboration (partners are signed up and ready to hit the ground running!)

In one sentence, please describe your idea or project.

To create a web-based tool for collective authoring of digitally-enhanced urban walking trails in partnership with LA-based community groups

Does your project impact Los Angeles County?

Yes (benefits all of LA County)

Which area(s) of LA does your project benefit?

  • Central LA
  • East LA
  • South LA
  • San Gabriel Valley
  • San Fernando Valley
  • South Bay
  • Westside

What is your idea/project in more detail?

A city-wide, community-based urban trails authoring platform. This web-based tool enables community organizations, interest groups, and the public to create a network of connected trails revealing new perspectives on LA and its people. Accessible as a mobile website the resulting web of walking paths and site specific content enable engagement with the city’s past, present, and future.

Creation of this community-supplied, location-based content experienced when walking stimulates discovery and promote new forms of collaborative, self-reflexive, space-oriented storytelling.

The city becomes an open walkable book, an exploratory public space archive, a playful gallery about itself. Let’s fill it with content and narratives that connect us

What will you do to implement this idea/project?

Employing participatory design approaches, our experienced UCLA-based creative team will build a web-based trail creation tool utilizing an iterative process that includes an ongoing dialogue with a core set of diverse community stakeholders. Participants will design trails while the technology is being developed, using prototypes, while outlining the features that will best enable them to construct meaningful urban walking experiences. Our confirmed community collaborators (LA Commons, CityLife-LA, and Franklin High School’s Arroyo Seco Academy) represent a diversity of perspectives and geographies in the city. To ground and enrich the development experience, each group will be tasked with creating a neighborhood-based interactive trail expressive of their own collective identity. Each group will also be asked to consider the possible thematic interconnections with the other groups and connect to each others’ trails.

A strong foundation for Trail City LA exists through our recent project at the Los Angeles State Historic Park (LASHP). Inspired by the work of students from Franklin High School in Highland Park and through collaboration with institutions based in Northeast Downtown LA, the predecessor LASHP Trails project consists of a mobile website experience featuring three loop trails emanating from LASHP. We will draw on this experience and the technology created for the LASHP Trails project to develop an open source toolset allowing for other community organizations and interest groups to generate and interconnect their own trails. In addition, we will expand the successfully designed and tested LASHP Trails user experience to include social media capabilities that enable personalization, annotation, and dialog between users.

In the one year period of LA2050 funding we expect to engage in three cycles of development, community authoring, and navigation experience. This participatory, dialogic process will permit the development of a tool which integrates the real interests and experiences of each layer of future users.

While LASHP Trails focuses on a centralized content archive and a set of predefined paths, Trail City LA will expand the possibilities to an open content/dynamic pathways approach. Each community group will be able to upload their own site-specific media and connect it to related hotspots in the city. Hotspots will initially be able to contain sequences of images and text, but eventually sounds and videos as well.

How will your idea/project help make LA the best place to CONNECT today? In 2050?

A “trail” is a rough path worn through woods, mountains, or other geographies. It is also a stream of things–dust, light, people, ideas, memories, stories–that flows behind something moving. We embrace both of these meanings, asking Angelenos to blaze new trails by examining the flow of history and experience that surrounds us all. By sharpening our sensory experience, opening ourselves to our surroundings, and unearthing the stories embedded in the world around us, we can learn to be present, engaged, and connected with our communities. Trail City LA encourages users to break with their everyday relationship to space, challenging them to open their minds and bodies to the wealth of culture hidden in plain sight.

We are building a platform through which Angelenos can connect to each other through the medium of place. To author a trail is to embed stories and ideas in space, transforming the seemingly mundane into material for dialogue and creative thinking.

Our proposal is an opportunity to invite new members, youth in particular, into existing community groups, sustain their interest, scaffold their participation, and support the development of a critical understanding of community issues and relate them to larger political and institutional arrangements. Our collaborative work with diverse community groups on the creation of a trail authoring platform ensures a truly user-generated and user-friendly tool which will allow community groups to creatively express their perspective on Los Angeles, furthering their understanding of the world around them and their agency within it. Users will emerge as neighborhood advocates, rooted in their communities and empowered by the interactive public demonstration of their research and their creativity.

Through Trail City, Los Angeles will be a living laboratory, vibrating with the voices and forms of its past, present, and potential future. Our dream outcome of Angelenos’ collective use of the trail authoring platform is the entire city connected through a web of community-authored content. It is a dynamic network of nodal content dancing within Los Angeles, turning any walk into a trail. A trail that is not static, but alive and awaiting your input or augmentation. We believe the best way to connect with the city is on two feet, Trail City LA will be a powerful tool for encouraging walking as an exploratory activity and enhancing our connection to place through engagement and creativity.

Whom will your project benefit?

We are building a tool that will benefit all Angelenos. Once built, the trail authoring platform could be used by high school history teachers as part of class assignments: “let’s build trails that encourage our fellow students to walk to school while exposing them to the unique stories of our neighborhood’s past” or “lets interview our community elders and build trails connecting their stories”. Urban planners could broaden community participation in the planning process by asking stakeholders to build trails that reveal the aspects they love about their neighborhood, but also its challenges. The planners themselves could build trails which explain their priorities and expertise. The trail authoring platform is a way to connect ideas and dialogue with movement through physical space. It is a tool that, once built, can be appropriated for an endless array of uses, all of which will contribute to the making of Trail City.

Trail City LA is an open toolset. By embracing the power of place and encouraging engagement with the here and now, the platform allows a dynamic and flexible authoring environment that can serve many different purposes and simultaneously enable connectivity among an amazing diversity of interests and approaches. Just about any community organization, interest group, cultural institution, or educational project will be able to use Trail City in its own unique, self-empowering, and engaging way.

During the next year of development, our collaborating community groups and the communities they represent will benefit the most from our project. These groups will be integral members of the team that is creating the technology; their ideas and experience building trails will be integrated into the design/structure of the technology itself. Through the collective process of building trails, participants will deeply consider their connections to place in Los Angeles. They will closely investigate their surroundings and their identity within them. All trails will be publicly available, providing an empowering venue for expressing the groups’ unique perspectives.

We are building a tool for the active creation of trails, but our project also benefits all physically present Angelenos who would like to experience the urban walks created by others. By encouraging Angelenos to walk and exposing them to hidden, place-based content and narratives we are benefiting all Angelenos who want to live in a livable, connected, and socially just city.

Please identify any partners or collaborators who will work with you on this project.

Successful collaboration with our partners requires a genuine participatory design process, of which we identify three critical factors: 1) A dynamic and consistent participation, not only by the leadership of each collaborating group, but most importantly by their target neighborhood constituency. 2) Facilitation of creativity that our collaborators find to be significant and truly reflective of their communities’ unique identities. 3) Production of a tool that is broad and inclusive, reflecting the amazing diversity of our city.

We are collaborating with a select group of community organizations that share our passion for creating a more walkable, civically engaged, and equitable Los Angeles. All of the collaborators identified have confirmed their participation.

LA Commons works to enhance Angelenos’ connection to place through highly visible public art projects that tell dynamic neighborhood stories. In a previous project with LA Commons we engaged a group of high school students from Highland Park to explore unfamiliar neighborhoods, collect images, and create interactive maps sharing their findings. LA Commons brings experience leading walking tours and connections to many different communities around the city such as Leimert Park, MacArthur Park, and East Hollywood.

CityLife works with young people from diverse backgrounds, utilizing the arts to explore culture, history, and politics in Los Angeles. In the Spring of 2013 we collaborated with CityLife, then based at Lincoln High School, in a National Science Foundation funded project that employed participatory design to build a tool for authoring “CyberMurals”: physically interactive digital murals that change based on conceptual parameters. CityLife brings an expertise in working with youth to explore urban issues and deep ties to the neighborhood of Lincoln Heights and Downtown more broadly.

We are particularly excited to be continuing our collaboration with Franklin High School’s Arroyo Seco Academy, because it was the work of their students in 2010 that inspired the Trail City LA concept. Assisted by staff from the National Parks Service, Franklin students designed 30 unique trails that required them to conduct in-depth and on-site research. The trail program has continued each year since then and our trail authoring platform will enhance the process they have already developed and enable the trails they create to contain dynamic media content and reach a wide audience.

How will your project impact the LA2050 “Connect” metrics?

  • Number of public transit riders
  • Participation in neighborhood councils
  • Percentage of Angelenos that volunteer informally (Dream Metric)
  • Attendance at public/open street gatherings (Dream Metric)

Please elaborate on how your project will impact the above metrics.

Number of public transit riders: By promoting walking through the Trail City network of space-based narratives, we will promote an experiential approach to the city. Walking, like bicycling, generates a more human sense of scale and distance, and better orientation. Such knowledge promotes alternative methods of navigating the city that are in opposition to the alienation of the automobile and supportive of public transportation. We strongly believe there is an important and verifiable connection between walking experiences and utilization of public transportation. By generating a city-wide network of community-authored trails we will enable a more collective, less individualistic approach to the city and will significantly promote public transportation.

Participation in neighborhood councils: Engaging community groups and neighbors in creating relevant trails through their communities will produce a better understanding of the opportunities and difficulties in a community. Creating a trail is a form of community research and will foster a relational understanding of the history, present and future prospects for those who live, play and work in it. Ultimately, creating trails and navigating trails will stimulate participation in the local democratic institutions and in the local decision making process.

Percentage of Angelenos that volunteer informally (Dream Metric): Trail City LA will enable community project and volunteer organizations to generate new forms of space-based engagement and recognition. From this perspective, a trail can be a form of branding and recruiting. Experiencing a particular group or project’s trail could powerfully express its identity and mission. By giving people an embodied experience relating to the group’s interests and objectives, a very strong sense of connection can be stimulated, thus enhancing users’ likelihood to volunteer.

Attendance at public/open street gatherings (Dream Metric): Walking the city, exploring public space, and getting to know other people also promote better familiarity with and participation in “what’s happening.” When we walk, we learn about upcoming events and how to get there. The extensive network of interconnected trails generated by Trail City LA will expose people to public/open street events and enable their participation.

Please explain how you will evaluate your project.

The central, digital technology component of our trail authoring and trail navigating system will in itself generate considerable metrics data to evaluate its functioning and success.

At the authoring level, we will be able to track and analyze the system’s evolution, growth, and coverage. Such statistics and analysis will be turned into charts and visualization by complementary, meaningful variables such as type of community group (education, service, advocacy, health, nature, etc.). In many cases, deeper anonymous authoring participants’ statistics could be tracked regarding age, gender, or other relevant considerations.

Since the hotspots and the media contents of a particular trail will be thematically tagged and annotated, visualizations and graphics about the evolving content of the systems will also be generated. Strategies like concept mapping and tag clouds could reveal surprising information about the city and its people. Visualizations like heat maps could reveal the system’s reach and help design better outreach approaches. In terms of the general access and navigation of the trail system, the mobile website will be able to monitor and quantify many variables such as distance covered, media accessed, feedback frequency, etc.

Through the use of social media functionalities the system will also promote and evaluate interaction among users and the authoring organizations. Users will be able to attach comments regarding particular features in a trail and ask questions about the authoring organization. Once again, this functionality is intrinsically and dynamical evaluative.

Finally, Trail City LA, will permit users to generate personalized pages of their experiences and encounters while navigating a trail. This page will enrich the general Trail City environment and be a self-reflexive component of the experience.

What two lessons have informed your solution or project?

Many social critics have warned of the increasing problem of alienation in our modern world. Los Angeles in particular has been criticized for its automobile dependency and lack of public spaces. “Nobody walks in LA” is a common trope, even though real Angelenos know this simply is not true. Collectively, our streets and sidewalks are an immense public space that unite the entire metropolis. All of us who have traversed our vast city on foot know that while there can certainly be frustrations (loud traffic and smog, lack of shade, missing crosswalks), there are also an endless supply of pleasant surprises which are only noticeable when on foot: the redtail hawk perched on a telephone poll, the subtle head nod of a passing stranger, or the aroma of sizzling onions from the bacon-wrapped hot dog vendor. Other small pleasures come from personal experience or historical knowledge: “I can’t believe those concrete slabs on the hillside were once part of a bridge that took streetcars into Downtown” or “I remember when we would buy paletas and walk home along the bank of the river.” Our experience walking the streets of Los Angeles have taught us an invaluable lesson: stepping out of our cars brings a deeper and more satisfying connection to the spaces of our city. The goal of Trail City LA is to encourage Angelenos to walk, not simply for transportation, but for the enjoyment and connection to place it provides.

Perhaps the greatest current threat to immediacy and connection to place is mobile technology. Smartphones connect us to the world at large but distract us from the environment and people directly in front of us. We can lament this development, but the technology is here to stay. Rather than becoming “anti-technology,” we have learned that, as an evolving tool, mobile technology can be appropriated for different purposes. The Trail City concept is designed to enhance connection to place by requiring users to be physically present at the place in which they are receiving content about. The virtual experience increases the users’ knowledge of their immediate environment while referencing the existing physical space. Similarly, by giving trail walkers only an abstract map and a compass, rather than step-by-step directions, we are asking them to navigate much like they would on a wilderness trail, with the same attentiveness to their physical environment.

Explain how implementing your project within the next twelve months is an achievable goal.

IMLab is a successful eight-year partnership between California State Parks and UCLA’s Center for Research in Engineering, Media, and Performance. Our extensive experience experimenting with innovative interpretive methods at LASHP has led to the development of our unique approach: Cultural Civic Computing. This method employs participatory design to build physically interactive, multimedia experiences and location-based mobile applications that together aim to enable collective creativity and exploration of identity. It aspires to provide fun and thought-provoking ways to investigate critical issues in the environment and then translate the resulting new knowledge into collaborative, publicly exhibited creative work.

Our project is within the scale and scope of previous IMLab projects, but it comes at a time of immense opportunity. LASHP Trails, our existing mobile website, is supported by a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the California Endowment, The City of Los Angeles, California State Parks, and the National Parks Service. Meanwhile, ten years after it opened for “interim public use,” the currently closed for construction LASHP will open as a fully-developed, 34-acre green space for the city to enjoy. One of the only small structures in the Park will be a new IMLab Interpretive Center, a technologically-enhanced space for physically interactive and participatory creative expressions that explore the past, present, and future of Los Angeles. The Interpretive Center will serve as the central node and portal into Trail City. Our experience in implementing Cultural Civic Computing projects and the supportive energy from our collaborating institutions, which continues to grow as evidenced by the MOU and concretized by the Interpretive Center, serve to not only to demonstrate the achievability of our project, but also its immense potential.

Please list at least two major barriers/challenges you anticipate. What is your strategy for ensuring a successful implementation?

Given the city-wide and open-nature objective of Trail City, our challenge will be to use an inclusive and participatory design process which results in the most usable and productive tool. We want to implement a public design process which results in a technological platform that is reflective of our unique city and its people. Usually the design and development of technology applications involves a few specialists creating for many users. But given the common-good intentions of Trail City LA a true participatory design process including a broad and diverse set of constituencies is necessary.

The challenge is to generate a dialog, creation, and development process that incorporates the special characteristics of our city, its physical layout, and its diverse population into the functionalities of the technological system. We want the specifications document for the final technological integration to be the result of a dynamic collective creativity process. To obtain the necessary participation, the process needs to be efficient and effective. Efficient because time is limited for most people so they need to have substantial participation with the least possible amount of invested time. It must be a fun, activity-driven, generative process. Effectiveness is also critical to participation as it is the basic reward for it. Each interaction by the collaborating organizations and the participating individuals needs to produce a clear and relevant result.

We will implement strategies from “Rapid Application Development” (RAD). We will emphasize the need to adjust functionality and interface design based on cycles of experience and knowledge generation as the project progresses. This implies the generation and testing of prototypes in a flexible process that can adapt as the project evolves.

As part of this process we will design a multi-layer dialog and feedback process. At one layer we will engage in high-level design discussions and prototype testing with the leadership of each of our collaborating community based organizations. Simultaneously each of those organizations will generate similar processes with their own neighborhood based constituencies.

A project long team of specially trained IMLab Collective Creativity specialists will participle in each layer of design, prototype and feedback and will be responsible for generating and coordinating an adaptable process integrating all voices into an inclusive but coherent vision.

What resources does your project need?

  • Network/relationship support
  • Money (financial capital)
  • Volunteers/staff (human capital)
  • Publicity/awareness (social capital)
  • Technical infrastructure (computers, etc.)
  • Community outreach