Chapter V: The Urban Alphabets project

The Urban Alphabets project was developed as a case study, to serve as an example of a mobile application designed to re-connect users with the public spaces they inhabit. Thus, it is essential to highlight the development process of the project, its fundamental ideas, the way the project functions as well as the means of presentation and the project outcomes.

To document Urban Alphabets this chapter starts with an outline of the process of the entire project, which is illustrated in Figure 12.

Figure 12: Project timeline

V.1 Project timeline: From a vague idea to the current project

The project idea developed when I moved to Helsinki in 2010: One day in winter 2010/2011 I walked on Helsinki’s Mannerheimintie, a central street leading to the city center, and started to take photos of letters, which I edited into my first Urban Alphabet when I arrived at home ‣1‣1 Figure 13. This was the starting point for the Urban Alpabets project: My attention to letters had increased, and I realized that letters by themselves disclose information about their environment. As an illustration we can think of the contrast between characters in the three following settings: The font used on freeways emphasizes readability and therefore frequently uses a big and simple san-serif font with high-contrasts ‣2‣2 Figure 14. In comparison, the branding of H&M serves as an example of a much more playful font, whose red color and additional backlight call our attention ‣3‣3 Figure 15. On the other hand, in a purely residential area we rarely see letters that we recognize on first sight. Most of the characters here provide simple orientation ‣4‣4 Figure 16.

Figure 13: First Urban Alphabet made in Helsinki Mannerheimintie street (2011)

Figure 14: (left) Street sign in Finland

Figure 15: (right) H&M branding sign

Figure 16: Street sign in residential area

Following this line of thought, the idea of the Urban Alphabets project is to capture alphabets from different neighbourhoods in a city or from different cities or countries, and compare their visuals. One of the aims when starting the project was to capture a visual identity of a city or neighbourhood. In other words, I expected comparing letters from different cities reveals something about the city itself.

Already during the first presentation of the initial prototype (v1) of the application in December 2011 it became clear that this project has more potential than being a proof of attendance for the Multitouch Interaction course. However, it was only over time that I started to realize the hidden implications and consequences for the users’ connection to physical space such a simple application could have. Certainly, looking different at the everyday surroundings was not a deliberately designed feature, but after making the first few alphabets I discovered myself “hunting for letters” also when I was without a smartphone. I encountered the alienation effect towards my physical environment, which was discussed by famous sociologists and philosophers such as Walter Benjamin, Georg Simmel and Henri Lefebvre. They debate alienation as a tool rethink everyday life experiences (Highmore 2002), which is clearly connected to my goal of re-connecting city dwellers with their physical surroundings ‣4‣4 See also chapter IV.3.

By chance I got invited to give a workshop and lecture about my work and the Urban Alphabets project at Make It center in St. Petersburg/Russia. During the first workshops and presentations in 2013 the project idea developed further and it became apparent that the local archive of letters on the user’s smartphone does not fulfill the project’s ambitions: During the discussions in St. Petersburg and Munich I received valuable feedback: Participants wanted to compare their own letters with the characters captured in other cities or countries. At this time the features for the next version (v2) for the iOS application became clearer: Firstly, looking at other users’ letters required an Internet connection in the application, which could upload the letters to a database. Secondly, there was a need for a website to display all uploads (letters, alphabets, postcards). These were the main changes implemented in autumn and winter 2013/14.

When this step was not even completed the Urban Alphabets project got selected into Connecting Cities Network’s (CCN) “Participatory City 2014” program. Connecting Cities is a network of media art and culture organizations aiming to circulate cultural content for media facades, urban screens and projection sites among the partnering cities. After an open call the partner institutions themselves decide which project they show in their local contexts.

Urban Alphabets was selected to travel to seven cities: Madrid, Riga, Helsinki, Berlin, Sao Paulo, Liverpool and Aarhus ‣5‣5 Figure 5. Apart from workshops using the new Urban Alphabets application (v2) the proposal included the idea to use the application as an input to collectively create the respective city alphabet. In other words, the geotagged letters uploaded through the application formed an alphabet representing the city. This city alphabet was generated in real-time and projected into public spaces during the CCN events.‣6 See chapter IV.1.3 The fact that the alphabet generated in real-time also introduced a new interesting experience: The city alphabet changes over time. It becomes a metaphor for the city itself,‣7 Link 11 shows videos of the development of the different city alphabets over time which is always changing. The city is never ready, it is never done; instead the city is continuously in flux, it is permanently changing ‣6. Therefore the city alphabet also changes over time. It becomes the representation at a certain moment in time instead of being made-up once and staying like this forever. ‣7

Moreover the urban screens also incorporated the last letters and recent postcards uploaded from the city in question. This encouraged users’ to participate during the actual event, not just in the workshop usually taking place before the opening of the urban screen.

As part of the CCN events I also conducted at least one workshop in each participating city. In addition the CCN workshops required expanding the range of devices the Urban Alphabets app supports. Therefore the development of the Android version started in January 2014. For this task I selected an external developer, a recent graduate from Aalto University’s Computer Science program. After many technical challenges the Android application premiered in the Play Store in May 2014, just in time for the workshop in Riga, Latvia.

My main motivation to take part in the CCN events was to get more user feedback on the current application prototypes, which were improved in several updates during the year 2014 (12 updates for iOS, 7 updates for Android). Furthermore the workshops held during the events serve as the main basis for this thesis. In group discussions or individual interviews and during the walks outside I collected feedback to answer the research questions ‣8‣8 See chapter I.3 for more details this thesis is concerned with.

After conducting 19 workshops, while writing this thesis I am confronted with many different opinions on how Urban Alphabets could be used and developed in future. The CCN events and other workshops have significantly shaped the project until now and will be the main basis for its future development. Some of the workshops opened my eyes for thinking differently about the project, while others mainly confirmed working hypotheses and others primarily revealed usability issues of the smartphone applications.

In brief, the Urban Alphabets project has developed quite far from the initial idea into three interfaces (the applications, the website, the urban screens); further then could have been imagined in the beginning. However, the main goal has stayed the same: Urban Alphabets enables users to capture letters from their environment and re-use the typographical elements to write their own messages. Most importantly Urban Alphabets thereby aims to re-connect users to their physical surroundings. In other words, Urban Alphabets makes users explore their environment in an unusual way by expanding their vision to little details they have not noticed before. Additionally, Urban Alphabets can be understood as a tool for or “miss-used” in many different tasks, a fact that I will return to several times within my writing.

V.2 Interfaces and functionalities

Even though the main interfaces the project uses have been mentioned in the previous part it is important to explain their current functionalities (v2) in more detail.

V.2.1 Smartphone applications

The smartphone applications for iOS and Android are the main interfaces Urban Alphabets relies on. Users are able to capture, crop and assign an individual letter of the alphabet. The letter is geotagged (if enabled by the user) and sent to the online database while Internet connection is available. In the current version the letters can only be uploaded immediately, that means if no Internet connection is available at a certain moment they are not uploaded later on.

Each alphabet consists of 42 characters. They contain letters, numbers and a varying number of special characters and do not differentiate between uppercase and lowercase letters ‣9‣9 Figure 17.

Figure 17: Screenshot empty alphabet (Danish/Norwegian)

The alphabet language can be changed, depending on the country the user is in‣10 Link 12 shows details on the currently supported languages. Currently the application includes the following languages ‣10:

Whenever the user takes a second photo of a letter the older one is replaced. In one example if a user already captured the letter “C” and finds a new “C”, the newer “C” overwrites the older “C”. There are no two versions of the same letter, which is grounded in one of the conceptual ideas: The city is always changing and there is no “reverse-button” for city life. We cannot go back in time and therefore the alphabet develops exclusively in one direction: forward.

Besides it is possible to make more than one Urban Alphabet in the application. This feature was implemented to accommodate users, who want to capture different alphabets in different neighbourhoods or cities while still being able to look at their other alphabets or continue them later. The user can store up to eight alphabets simultaneously, which can include different language versions. They must be called differently, because the name is the main identifier for the individual alphabet.

Once enough letters have been collected a user can apply these characters in writing their own short messages, called Urban Postcards ‣11‣11 Figure 18. The length of the texts is limited to 42 characters, which has mainly technical reasons: We did not want to introduce scroll views as the programming knowledge of the people involved is limited and it would increase the difficulty disproportionally. Additionally, Urban Postcards are not easy to read, they need to be “de-coded”, which becomes harder with longer messages. The Urban Postcards, just as the Urban Alphabets, can be saved as png-images on the device and/or sent to Twitter, Facebook or via email.

Figure 18: Urban Postcard

Though the features described above are the main functionalities there are few other functions in the application: It is possible to reset or completely delete an alphabet, change the alphabet name and language after it has been created and change the username (the username is required in order to send the letter to the online database). Furthermore the user can look at individual letters in bigger scale and delete a letter.

During the course of this research many usability issues have been reported. The paper-based survey asked the participants in an open-ended question what would make it more likely for them to use the Urban Alphabets application in future. Many answers reveal problems in the usability of the application ‣12‣12 Digital appendix 3-5. Since the results of each workshop were analyzed immediately after, many usability issues could be solved before the next workshop. For example, a user during a Helsinki walking tour (August 2014) noticed that instead of the original captured photos only the cropped individual letters were saved in the device’s photo library. This was changed for the next workshop in Berlin in September 2014.

Many of the comments made during the discussions as well as in the answers in the paper-based surveys especially addressed the Android application. One reason is the large range of devices that utilize the Android operating system. An additional challenge was introduced because the Android developer often did not see the problems on the devices himself but only received the error reports from me.

However, we tried to incorporate feedback on usability of the Urban Alphabets apps whenever possible. Nevertheless, some technically more challenging issues have not been addressed yet. For example, zooming to the center of an image is technically more challenging than often thought. These and similar problems should be solved in the third iteration (v3) of the Urban Alphabets applications and are included in more detail in chapter VII ‣13‣13 See chapter VII.2.1.

V.2.2 Web interface

The main affordance of the web interface ( is to explore all contributions made to the Urban Alphabets project. In its main part the website incorporates the uploaded letters, alphabets, and postcards on a geotagged map, and the city alphabets made during the CCN events. Additionally the website includes information about the project, a timeline, a project blog and other information.

The current web interface was developed simultaneously with v2 of the Urban Alphabets application and updated and extended several times since. One of the major updates was introduced in July 2014 when the website became mobile- and tablet-friendly.

At the home page the user interacts with a world map marking where individual contributions were made. Several uploads in the same area are clustered in bigger circles, including a number indicating the amount of uploads from that area. These clusters change with the map’s zoom scale. The main purpose of the world map is to explore the uploads’ geolocation. Some users might get to know other places only by looking at this two-dimensional representation. By zooming in, the user can explore a certain area on a relatively small scale and sometimes even follow the routes people have taken during the workshops.

As a second main section the visitor can look at all letters, alphabets, or postcards that have been uploaded. By default the newest uploads are shown first, whereas older ones can be looked up by clicking “Load more images” on the bottom. Letters can also be sorted by alphabet, while postcards and alphabets can be organized by language. As we will see later, looking at different versions of one letter can become insightful.

Thirdly, the website includes the City Alphabets ‣14‣14 e.g., Link 14 shows the current Helsinki city alphabet introduced as part of the CCN events. Each of the CCN cities holds their city alphabet. Some, such as Helsinki and Berlin, additionally include neighbourhood alphabets, which refer to the different city parts where workshops were conducted.

The other sections of the website are less important than the aforementioned: In the “Project Blog” I try to write updates after each event or about other news connected to the project. The “Change Log” was thought to be an almost daily more technical archive of changes that have been made to the applications or website during the project’s development phase. However, it was not used as frequently as imagined. The main reason was the use of a Git for the smartphone applications, where all changes were committed ‣15 Link 15 shows all code related to the project.with a message indicating the changes in the code ‣15. Therefore the use of an additional Change Log seemed redundant. Nevertheless, some updates can be found there.

Lastly, the website contains an “Info” section, where visitors can find general facts about the project and how to participate. Besides there is information about the accompanying research and related art and design projects.

V.2.3 Urban screens

As has already been mentioned the urban screens, media facades and projections in public spaces have not been part of the project idea from the beginning. Rather their concept developed when making the proposal for CCN’s call for “Participatory City 2014”.

The main idea of the urban screens was to project the resulting City Alphabets and postcards back into public space and to visualize the change of a City Alphabet over time. Both these aspects reveal the essence of the project idea: The city is always changing and so is the alphabet. While using the application, the user also captures public space. Projecting this back into the same or a different public space generates new questions. In particular I got involved in many discussions about who is allowed to speak and be visible in public space? ‣16‣16 See chapter VI.2.2 The idea was to open up the contribution not only to people who have made their own Urban Alphabet, but also to accidental passers-by.

The urban screen’s content always consisted of three elements ‣17‣17 Partly visible in digital appendix 1:

In order to empower passers-by or city dwellers who do not own smartphones I developed a tablet interface, where they could use the current city’s alphabet, write their Urban Postcard, and send it to the screen. Technically, during the first CCN events this has been a special webpage but later I programmed it into an iOS application for iPads. This tablet was usually freely available for the event visitors, so that they could go themselves to write their message and send it to the screen.

In order to give the visitors in the locations some indicators for meaningful messages each display showed one of the following questions (starting from the event in Riga):

These questions were thought to be easy to answer and open for a wide range of replies, not just a single meaning. Besides, the answers could be short and potentially reveal something about the environment the screen was in.

For an overview over the CCN events Urban Alphabets was shown in and more details refer to Figure 19 ‣18‣18 Figure 19. Whereas the medium and timeframe of the screenings are meant as informative assets the column called “input devices” is of major importance. It does not only state how many iPads have been used but also how they have been made available to the visitors. During the events where the iPads were in individual stands by themselves and a guarding person only in sight of them, visitors freely went to write by themselves. In contrast, when a person was holding the iPad the first step to encouraging a visitor to write something was at least a short conversation. Also the participants seemed to feel more controlled and were more likely to answer the question posed instead of writing candidly. Personally, I preferred the situations where visitors could freely approach the project without being forced to communicate about it first. Additional information could still be given if participants seemed confused, were searching for help, or had questions.

Figure 19: Overview screenings

In addition to the screenings in individual cities I also implemented a so-called “connected scenario”. In a connected scenario two cities or two locations within the same city could see the alphabet, postcards and letters of the connected other location next to alphabet, postcards and letters from their own city ‣19‣19 Figure 20. By uploading Urban Postcards in each location a small, slow dialogue could evolve. Connected scenarios were installed in September 2013 in between Berlin and Riga and between two locations in Berlin (Brunnenkiez, Gerichtsstrasse both situated in the same district). Each connected scenario lasted for two evenings. The main challenge was to get visitors in both locations to upload postcards simultaneously and react to the messages the other location sent. As the postcards were not shown in real-time but with a delay of 1-2 minutes, visitors often lost interest before receiving an answer to their postcard.

Figure 20: Photo of connected scenario

As I have explained above the three different parts of the project are developed and technically fully functional. However, there is room for improvement: New features suggested for the smartphone applications and the project website will be outlined in a later section ‣20‣20 See chapter VII.2.1.

V.3 Gallery setups in Helsinki and Liverpool

In addition to the three main ways that Urban Alphabets was presented during the CCN events, in two cities I had the opportunity to use gallery spaces: in Helsinki during the local Media Facades Festival and in Liverpool as part of the Development Lab during the Typemotion exhibition. As the requirements were very different the setups are described separately:

In Helsinki the exhibition took place in the Lasipalatsi gallery for four days (Aug 21-24, 2014). Approximately half of the gallery space was dedicated to Urban Alphabets whereas the other half was used by Timo Bredenberg’s installation “I,Cloud / Uncharted”. The presentation of Urban Alphabets consisted of five parts:

An alphabet in development where every hour the gallery staff replaced an empty paper with the printout of the current Helsinki alphabet. Over time visitors could experience how the alphabet differed from the opening to the closing day ‣21‣21 Figure 21.

Figure 21: (left) Helsinki gallery: alphabet in development

Figure 22: (right) Helsinki gallery: world map and iPad

Figure 23: (left) Helsinki gallery: magnetic board

Figure 24: (right) Helsinki gallery: interactive iPad

The space was designed to get in touch with the visitors. Many of them were full of inspirational thoughts or made their own connections.

The gallery setup in Liverpool was an open space in the Development Lab of the Typemotion exhibition from November 2014 to February 2015. This exhibition presented text and typography used in moving images. The main intention in the gallery was to present the Urban Alphabets application and encourage people to download it themselves. Therefore an iPad with the current version of the application installed, was an important part of the exhibition ‣26‣26 Figure 25. Besides, the space included a magnetic board featuring magnets with letters from all other CCN partner cities, that project has been shown. Additionally, on a gallery screen the current project video was presented, alternating with the latest uploaded letters, postcards and the City Alphabet from Liverpool.

Figure 25: Gallery setup in Liverpool

V.4 Visible Outcomes

The Urban Alphabets project results in a number of different outcomes. Besides the results mentioned in the following subchapter there are also the discussion outcomes from the workshops and screening events. Those are part of the main research this work is concerned with and will therefore be mentioned in detail during the discussion of the workshop outcomes ‣27‣27 See chapter VI.


By nature a smartphone application aiming to create a visual archive of letters produces a number digital outcomes. Most importantly the outcomes include the archive of geolocated letters photographed mostly in urban environments, but also from books and in indoor spaces. This archive is made available through the project website. Furthermore these geotagged, photographed letters form Urban Alphabets, the main aim of the application, and Urban Postcards, the elements that make the application a communication tool. Both are also presented on the project website.

Furthermore over the course of this project several project videos have been created. The first video stems from January 2013 immediately after the first prototype of the application was implemented. It presents the project idea and documents the first prototype (v1) of the Urban Alphabets application. The European Capital of Culture 2014 Riga produced the second video with the aim to promote the application in Latvia. The yet most extensive video overview of the Urban Alphabets project has been created by m-cult as part of the Media Facades Festival Helsinki 2014 and the Connecting Cities Network. This video includes not just the smartphone application but also explains the urban screens and workshops.


After working on the project intensively for more than a year and all outcomes remained digital, I personally had the urge to aim for a physical outcome: Using the applications the user transforms something physical, letters in the environment, into something digital, the digital photographic representations of individual letters that form alphabets or postcards. Reversing this process by making this digital representation of the physical environment back into something physical seemed a new approach that could broaden the audience of the Urban Alphabets project:

For most of the CCN events during the year 2014 City Postcards were produced, so that workshop participants and visitors during the events could take something physical with them. The front side the postcards always featured an Urban Postcard with the message “Hello [city name]!” ‣28 Figure 26. The slogan plays with the programmer’s tradition to write “Hello world!” when learning a new programming language. The backside of the postcards featured the link to the project website, in human readable form and as a QR code, and some more information about the local CCN events and its sponsors.

The other important physical outcome was already mentioned as part of the gallery setups in Helsinki and Liverpool: Urban Alphabets magnets. The magnets enabled gallery visitors without a smartphone or without the patience to make their own Urban Alphabet, to participate in the Urban Alphabets project. By using the magnets, each featuring one letter, people could form their own words and leave short messages in the gallery. Most messages consisted of individual words, forming the own name was very popular, but few visitors also formed short sentences ‣29‣29 Figure 27. In fact, the magnets were conceived so well, that I consider making them into a product: It could work well in a tourist shop as a box of magnets featuring one city ‣30‣30 See chapter VII.2.1.

Figure 26: (left) Physical Urban Postcards in Berlin

Figure 27: (right) Magnets used towrite

During the workshop in St. Petersburg, the participants also printed the individual letters, cut them out separately and formed words and short messages out of them ‣31‣31 Figure 28. Though the idea was born because the app was not yet publicly available, it illustrated that this method worked well and could be utilized especially in educational settings.

Figure 28: Writing with printed letters in St. Petersburg

V.5 Statistics

This subsection is different from the other parts of this thesis. Instead of a written comprehension the section consists of seven pages of visualizations ‣32‣32 Figures 29-35. The pages reflect the statistics of the Urban Alphabets project: While figure 29 gives a first overview about up- and downloads and user numbers, figures 30 to 32 show a more detailed picture of the uploads and downloads over time. The annotations in these figures also highlight the CCN events and showcase that in some the down- and upload numbers increase erratically while others do not have a big impact on the statistics. Figure 33 sorts the uploads to the Urban Alphabets database by country. Figure 34 gives an insight into the user numbers and highlights that many users do not just use the application once but more than one third of the users upload more than 10 letters. Figure 35 shows which letters were the most popular ones for upload to the Urban Alphabets database.

The data for these statistics has been gathered on a weekly basis between the sixth week 2014 (February 3, 2014) and the eighth week 2015 (February 17, 2015). Download data for the Android application has only been gathered from July 14th 2015 (week 29/2014). Therefore the dotted line in figure 30 is an approximation of the download curve and the downloads of the Android app are missing until week 29/2014 in figure 31.

Figure 29: Statistics: overview
Figure 30: Statistics: development of app downloads
Figure 31: Statistics: app downloads per week
Figure 32: Statistics: development of uploads
Figure 33: Statistics: Uploads per country
Figure 34: Statistics: users
Figure 35: Statistics: ten most uploaded letters

This chapter documented Urban Alphabets for the reader. The project was developed to answer the research questions of this work. Urban Alphabets specifically aims to re-connect users with their physical surroundings by directing their attention to the characters in the public spaces they inhabit.

>> next: chapter VI: Discussion