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5 Minutes in the Life of a Sidewalk

A clever data visualization of how we move through shared space.

Jaak Kaevats

The above visualization, created by interaction designer Jaak Kaevats, captures five minutes in the life of a narrow slice of streetscape in Tokyo. The pedestrians passing through it are plotted as if on a timeline. Their identities have been digitally blurred, but their demographics – old men, young women, small children – remain visible. Collectively, this static picture of their movement reveals the rhythm of a Tokyo street, with its dense foot traffic, mix of ages, both businessmen and shoppers.

As part of a masters thesis at the Interface Cultures Lab in Austria, Kaevats has created such visualizations from street-scapes all over Japan and now in some parts of Europe. He uses a custom software program that renders video footage of each location into a 5-minute timeline, with each row of visual data illustrating 30 seconds in time.

The fixed scenery in the background is blurred, too, creating a simplified picture of the density and character of people using these public spaces. All of the walkers are plotted in a single direction, with those people moving the average speed – about 5 kilometers an hour – shown in their original proportions. People moving faster are compressed into thinner caricatures, while people moving slower are stretched wider.

Compare the scenes to each other across cities, and a kind of local street-scape identity emerges. Here is a street in the Namba neighborhood of Osaka:

At the quieter Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima:

And the Takaoka area of Nagoya:

Kaevats has exhibited the first stage of the project in Japan, where he says he was startled to realize that people were able to recognize the cities simply from these images, by characteristics like clothing and bicycle shape (people in Tokyo ride more traditional bikes, people in Osaka tend to have newer ones).

From a distance, the images also say something about those parts of any city that are well-used – and by whom.

All images courtesy of Jaak Kaevats.


About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.