Urban life is largely composed of the movement, activities and familiar patterns of people within and across our crowded urban landscapes. There is also a curiosity, perhaps even verging on a voyeuristic interest in the lives of our fellow urban neighbors.  As we traverse our city we share time and space with others.  As we idle awaiting a bus, or navigate to our local café, we encounter other strangers.  Often unconsciously we create fictitious stories about the lives of these people – that woman owns two cats, than man is a vegan, that child is lonely.  These people and the way they dress and behave on public city streets provide us an insight into the lives of others. 

Just as an archeologist excavates layers of debris from past civilizations to inform histories of ancient civilizations, so too can the discarded artifacts of today’s urban inhabitants be used to create the rich milieu of everyday stories of urban life.  In fact, we can observe these patterns by extracting the secondary traces that are left behind by the flows of urban inhabitants – the archaeology of public urban trash.

As urban places are traversed, used, experienced, and neglected, a pattern or trace of trash is created on the landscape. What does the type and/or amount of trash say about a place and the people that frequent (or neglect) it?  Can new urban computing technologies influence trash accumulation, collection, awareness? Can we observe and interpret patterns of usage perhaps near a public city trashcan that can reveal a larger story of the place and people that inhabit and traverse it?  We explore these and other questions using the Urban Probes methodology.

Our Urban Probe, Jetsam, explores urban public trash, its meaning, patterns, and usage, as it manifests itself in cities.  Through this probe we hope to uncover new opportunities for technology to emerge across urban landscapes and further connect with our emotional experiences of living in cities.

You can also read the full research paper on this project:

Urban Probes: Encountering our Emerging Urban Atmospheres
Eric Paulos and Tom Jenkins
ACM SIGCHI, April 2005

or watch a 10 minute video about Urban Atmospheres, Urban Probes, and Jetsam:

Urban Atmospheres Intro (w/ Jetsam) VIDEO


Urban Atmospheres at Intel Research