Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
“It’s starting to feel like a smartphone zombie apocalypse–there are so many people looking down and missing out on the city around them.”
I often walk to and back from work, which is a great way to commute, right? Except, instead of taking this time to disconnect and enjoy my surroundings, I end up trudging from one intersection to the next on autopilot, with my eyes glued to my phone. Usually, I’m just checking my work emails, Slack messages, and Twitter mentions: ticking off mundane digital tasks I could easily get to when I reach my destination. This is a terrible habit—I know this—but so far, I’ve had no luck breaking it.
Enter artist and designer Ekene Ijeoma with a solution. Ijeoma has noticed many New York City pedestrians suffering from the same type of phone addiction. “It’s starting to feel like a smartphone zombie apocalypse—there are so many people looking down at their phones and missing out on the city around them,” he says. “What would an intersection look and feel like if everyone looked up to embrace the city’s diversity and engage in serendipity? What if everyone drained all the energy they pour into their phones back into our streets?”
As a step towards answering these questions, Ijeoma created an app (appropriately called Look Up) that reminds pedestrians to take in the sights and sounds around them and engage with other humans at the intersections. “Look Up brings a lot of [Jane Jacobs’] ideas of eyes on the street and sidewalk ballet to the digital age age,” he says. “I think looking up from our phones to acknowledge others could bring a lot more empathy between polarized communities, which is something we could use a lot of right now.” By reminding pedestrians to check their surroundings before crossing the street, the app could curb dangerous walking habits, too.
Look Up is the latest of Ijeoma’s data-driven urbanism-related projects. It uses GPS and wi-fi to detect when a person is approaching an intersection. At that point, the phone starts vibrating, and the home screen lights up with a colorful animation of eyeballs—a very literal reminder to keep your eyes on the road in front of you. (The app lets users choose whether they want to be reminded at each intersection, at every third one, or at random ones.) The number of vibrations and ring around the irises of the animated eyeballs indicate how many car crashes have occurred there.
Here’s a video on the app’s website that demonstrates how Look Up works:
Currently, Look Up is also only available for Android devices; an iOS version is due out in August 2016. Ijeoma also hopes to expand this app to cities beyond New York, so that more and more people can use their cell phones to beat their cell phone addiction.