App Turns NYC Subway Maps Into Interactive Data Visualizations

Tunnel Vision visualizes a trove of data sets to reveal stories about the Big Apple's transportation, population, and neighborhoods using computer vision.

If you’re a New Yorker who likes to nerd out about maps, urbanism, and data visualization, a new app called Tunnel Vision will be like poetry to your eyes. But even if you're not into any of those things, it might make dismal waits on subway platforms a little more fun.

When you point your smartphone at any MTA map, Tunnel Vision uses augmented reality to place stories about the city’s population, neighborhoods, and transportation on top of the map. Those are stories that, before the dawn of high-tech data viz, would’ve appeared as piles of boring numbers.

“The app sits at the junction of a few interests of mine: computer vision, data visualization, and the subway,” says Bill Lindmeier, who created the app for his graduate thesis at NYU’s ITP program. “My initial motivation was to create a portrait of New York through data.”

Tunnel Vision uses six primary data sets, viewable on the app as visualizations in different distinct modes. This includes:

  • The Official Schedule: the estimated position of every train in the system, based on the MTA's GTFS formatted trip data. Trains represented as colored dots inch along the tracks like Pac-Men.

  • Turnstile activity: the number of people coming in and out of each station, based on a year’s worth of historical data from the MTA. It lets you see the estimated number of people in the system at a given time—which serves an average of 8,552,646 riders a day.

  • Median income, rent prices, and population density in each neighborhood: data sets culled from the U.S. Census.

  • The percentage of people who only speak English in their household, also from the U.S. Census.

Lindmeier was attracted to the subway map’s distinctive visual language, loosely based on a 1972 design by the legendary Massimo Vignelli. “I wanted to piggyback on the connection that people already have with that image and extend it with something unexpected,” Lindmeier says. Since people use the app in a subway station (it requires no Internet connection), there's a baked-in context that makes the data feel extra relevant—they might recognize that they are one of those little dots on the screen, and so is that busker over there, and so is that crying baby.

While Tunnel Vision is designed as a way to learn about the city (and make your commute less soul-sucking), it also has practical uses. Tapping on a station in the Schedule view shows the estimated arrival time of the next four trains in either direction (according to the GTFS data)—helpful when the station annoyingly lacks an LED timetable display.

If you wanna check it out, Tunnel Vision is available at the iTunes store.

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