Matt Rouser interview.

9 Nov

INTERVIEW WITH Matt Rouser

We first met Matt Rouser at a conference in Sweden, where we were both presenting our work on participatory media projects. He continues to imagine innovative uses of urban space. His recent work has been focused on revitalization of underused and empty urban space, specifically in Landskrona, Sweden and New York City. Mobile technologies and new media are his tools of choice: maps, location-based services, social media-platforms, and AR.

Some of his projects include City API, for Landskrona city, Sweden; Made in the Lower East Side in NYC; The Boston Barometer, a look at tax assessor’s data and indicators around the city; and Ungentry, a web map of gentrification indicators in Boston.

We caught up with him in July 2014, in the midst of his current projects in Boston.

 

 

PEA RIVER

Do you find your sense of the locative evolving as you continue to work, and have you found that client/community requirements and expectations are more location-centric now than they were, say, 3-5 years ago?

MATT

It is definitely ever-changing and evolving. I brought myself into this field because I was fascinated by more philosophical questions surrounding space. How do we assign meaning to space? How do spacial characteristics influence our interactions with each other and with the space itself? From there, how do we broaden or focus the scope of possibility for interactions in given spaces. How does a space become a place which is amenable to these various forms of interaction?

As technology rapidly evolves, I am finding that there are new possibilities opening up on almost a daily basis. From the whimsical and momentary to the rather profound. Further, the locative is more and more becoming embedded into daily activities. A picture uploaded to Facebook can automatically be tagged with your location. Yelp can quickly give you suggestions based on your location where you might have needed to rely on verbal recommendations or otherwise before. Entire forms of social interaction are being replaced with processes that begin by looking at your Lat/Long coordinates.

5 years ago, smart phones had not yet reached the level of ubiquity that they have now. Facebook and Twitter were just hitting their stride. A large portion of my friend circle were creeped out by the idea of a social “check-in” that gave their location. This is something that is now often taken completely for granted. Not much consideration is given for the deeper social implications when iOS ask you “This app wants to use your location: OK/ Cancel.” That becomes part of my role as a designer and creator; to look to integrate the locative in a way that serves the purposes of community in a healthy way.

PEA RIVER

Do you have a process for approaching a new project?

MATT

My projects are generally either purpose-driven or exploratory in nature. For an exploratory project, I work to develop a framework that will allow for unexpected discovery and build in as few restricting factors as possible. For example, in mapping a set of data for 311 calls in a city, I work to let the data show through on its own and provide complimentary data so that correlations can be explored.

Purpose-driven projects take a much finer grained approach. Each component of a platform or an installation has a determined role, leading to greater engagement or eliciting a purposeful response from the user.

In each case, I draw from geographical, sociological and data-driven frameworks to guide and instruct the construction of a project, along with industry best practice and carefully chosen collaboration points.

PEA RIVER

What is your current project?

MATT

Currently, I am leading a project through the Code for Boston volunteer brigade. It is called Ungentry, and it maps out various demographic indicators in Boston related to gentrification. It is in the early stages, but we are working on combining census data with data from apps like Foursquare to get a picture of the location and pace of change in the city. Everyone “knows” that Boston is changing rapidly, and quickly becoming too expensive to live in, but the statistical evidence has not been put together yet.

PEA RIVER

When did you first know that you wanted to work with location-based software+apps?

MATT

When I was working on my grad degree in Urban Planning, various forms of social media were beginning to flex their muscle as drivers of social change and paradigm shifters in communication. I began an independent study on its relation to space and while I was in process, I downloaded Foursquare (now Swarm) along with a few other locative apps and was hooked.

Most have not delivered on their initial promise of increased social connectivity and serendipitous interaction. Instead, most have followed the path to monetization through exploiting users’ social patterns to create personalized recommendation engines. The possibility of greater social utility still exists, but it will take continued iteration, exploration and technological evolution.

PEA RIVER

Who are you reading right now?

MATT

I’m reading Code/Space by Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge. It explores the permeation and inescapability of code surrounding us in everyday objects and actions. Code plays a integral part in the production of space and vice versa, and they deepen the understanding of this important relationship.

PEA RIVER

Which writers and genres inspire you?

MATT

When I am not reading about code/tech in space, Urban Planning case studies or geographical analysis, I tend to enjoy literature in the absurdist tradition. Camus and Kafka are favorites along with a plethora of short fiction.

PEA RIVER

I love the gentrification mapping project idea. Where do you think you (and others) will take it?

MATT

We will take it as far as the data allows us. We do not have a particular axe to grind re gentrification, but we do want to help people have a better idea of the ways that the city is changing.

PEA RIVER

What are some uses you can see for the project and its maps as people start studying the implications of this work?

MATT

Its goal is to be an informative tool for both community members and policy makers in the city. We have the ear of a number of people in government and other positions that have a hand in development, and they have shown an interest in examining data in this fashion.

PEA RIVER

And since this issue is focused on the burden of home, and you are the location/mapping mastermind, how has your own sense of “home” shifted since you’ve begun work with this emphasis? Or did it begin with a desire to interrogate what geolocation and mapped/mappable relationships mean?

MATT

My initial interest was related to what I recognized as a rapidly changing landscape, and a desire to examine the possibilities of where that could lead. However, over the last few years it has certainly colored my thought process related to concepts of home, place and belonging.

“Home” is still a concept that I ponder on a regular basis. To be frank, I have yet to obtain any real sense of assuredness when it comes to my own definition. In a working sense, I believe that home is something that you take with you. After going through the immigration process in Sweden and becoming a dual citizen, I have gained an even stronger sense of the elements in my life that are still so foundational and were derived from my upbringing in Michigan. To feel “at home,” there is a certain percentage of those elements which must be present, along with a level of social connectivity and intimacy that supports and nourishes.

As I stated before, geolocation has not yet delivered on its promise of greater social utility, but I take that pursuit into consideration with every project I take on.

PEA RIVER

So I have to ask this question of everyone. If you could become a different animal, which animal would you be? And why?

MATT

I have an affinity for the woodlands of the northern hemisphere and the creatures therein. I would choose an owl, probably a great horned owl. They embrue a certain sense of dignity and gravitas that is admirable. Plus they’re just really cool.

 

matt rouser

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