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Artist Surveys Everyday San Franciscans' Moods, With Surprising Results

By Arjanna van der Plas - Published on November 02, 2016.

With the election only days away, national news headlines project that the national mood is low. But are San Franciscans really feeling so down?

Local architect and urban designer Paul Jamtgaard recently built and engaged San Franciscans with Metro Moods, an interactive installation that aimed to express the mood of passersby during last month's Market Street Prototyping Festival.

During the Market Street Prototyping Festival, Jamtgaard and his team invited people to express how they felt by adding one or more bright-colored balls to his installation. Each color represented a certain emotional state, such as happiness, anger and sadness. He made a timelapse that shows how the mood on Market Street changed during the festival.

Pedestrians add colorful balls to the installation.

“I was inspired by the idea of biofeedback,” Jamtgaard explains. “Many people measure their heart rate and their footsteps, and use this information to improve their lifestyle. The Metro Moods installation gives us cues about how society is doing, allowing us to take action if citizens seem down.”

“The installation turned out to be a very meaningful conversation starter," Jamtgaard adds. "For example, one woman put in two purple ‘fear’ balls. When I asked her if she was doing OK, she told me her sons and husband were in Florida facing Hurricane Matthew. Her fears were so real that I gave her a hug. She threw in a yellow ‘happy’ ball as she left.”

The balls also stirred up conversations around the complexity of emotions. “We started turning emotions into recipes,” Jamtgaard recalls. “Someone just came out from work feeling stressed. But what is stress, really? She picked a blend of ‘strong’, ‘anger’ and ‘fear.’”

Jamtgaard explains how the mood barometer works.

Although Jamtgaard intended Metro Moods to be an invitation to create art together, that didn’t always happen in the way he envisioned it. Some kids started playing with the balls, throwing in all the balls in their favorite color.

“Their play interfered with the factual reading of the installation," Jamtgaard said. "But it was fun to see how the colors and shapes attracted them on an intuitive level. In general, I was glad to see that most people interacted with Metro Moods in a meaningful way. The city is often criticized for becoming superficial and unfeeling. This installation allowed us to see the currents running below the surface."

Given that random additions skewed the data, Jamtgaard decided not to count the colored balls by hand each day to calculate the city's mood. But he did walk away with a general sense of local morale.

So, roughly five weeks away from the election—amid reports of Russian hackers attempting to sway the election and the second presidential debate—how was San Francisco feeling? "Based on my experience with Metro Moods, I would say that San Francisco’s mood is pretty good, with a light dose of fear, anger and stress."

With hopes of equipping cities all over the world with his real time ‘geofeedback’ installation, Jamtgaard is using his experience during the festival to further develop Metro Moods.

“I built the installation in such a way that is easy to dismantle and rebuild in another location," he said. "It would be interesting to measure the pulse of the city with Metro Moods during important events, like the election. My dream is to implement Metro Moods installations nationally or even globally, as a means to express the currently unexpressed emotional undercurrent, so we can act on it and make our cities more livable and alive.” 

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