Seismic Summer: Collaborating with CalTech

October 22, 2012

By Andrew Nagata, student, Lab2013. For my summer x-term internship, I worked with the Community Seismic Network (CSN) at CalTech. CSN functions like a citizen science project in which volunteers host seismic sensors in their homes and offices in order to produce a high density, high fidelity record of seismic activity. I had to create my own project brief, considering what I could do, as a designer, for the CSN. Having a blank slate was both exciting and challenging.

Seismic Display from Lemonade on Vimeo.

CSN uses sensors that continuously report shake data to the project servers. The goal is to collect as much information from as many single points as possible to construct a high resolution map of the ground’s movement. Traditional scientific sensors are too expensive to use in large quantities and traditional methods of citizen reporting are too coarse to produce maps with the level of precision desired. The CSN is a happy medium between these two methods, deploying low cost sensors capable of producing “good enough” data through a network of volunteers. Because the shake map resolution is dependent on the number of volunteers with active sensors, recruiting volunteers is critical to the project’s success. This is where I decided to focus my project.

After conversations with Richard Guy, CSN’s project manager, I did some explorations into what these in-home sensors could be if we thought of them as expressive, creature-like, devices. I posed these questions: If the Earth speaks through quakes, how do we transmit and represent its voice? And, how might the dynamic nature of the Earth’s surface be felt through a tangible, in-home, display?

I envisioned a fluid, undulating, surface that would react to remote and local waveform data. After a quick consult with Marshall Hamachi at Art Center’s Color, Materials, and Trends Laboratory, I decided to animate a sheet of Lycra.

My initial studies were just convincing enough to motivate work on a larger piece. I wrote software to pull in remote data from the USGS and IRIS Database, as well as to translate seismic waveforms into physical movement across my sheet of fabric. As I cobbled together the bits and pieces I began to see that the physical movement of the Lycra took on a life of its own. At times it reminded me of waves lapping along the shore, at others a mythic beast writhing just below the surface. I added a wireless motion sensor to allow the volunteers to visualize their own earthquakes. “The Puck,” as I called it, allowed shaking on a personal scale to be compared with shaking on a terrestrial scale.

One of the benefits of building this device was to shed some light on what it might mean to volunteer for CSN. Perhaps the role of the volunteer could be re-imagined: To become a volunteer is to begin the process of coping, to glean from the poetics of the dangerous a sense of connectedness, tuning in to one of many voices rumbling mysteriously from spaceship Earth.