Salford Quays data-gathering walks

Phase III of The Tour of T’North:


I’ve been building some Colony ‘critter’ variants for exhibition at The Lowry as part of their Right Here Right Now showcase of contemporary digital art. During the exhibition, the animatronic forms will be moving in such a way as to ‘remember’ a walk taken around the surrounding Salford Quays area. This was the data-gathering part of that task where I did the walks and collected the data that would determine the critters’ movements.


Day 1 was my first visit to the Quays and a chance to – literally – suss out the lie of the land. Amidst the drizzle and general greyness I walked around with what I hoped was a not-too-suspicious-looking rucksack full of batteries, GPS equipment, Arduino and data loggers.

dodgy rucksack

The critters are effectively claustrophobic and move more (get distressed) in response to being taken to places where buildings restrict their view of the sky (this links back to the quality of the GPS signal they receive – see the previous post for more information). In order for them to not just be doing the same thing all the time during the exhibition, I was therefore seeking out a range of built environments and collecting the data in order to get a feel for the ranges encountered. Media City provides a selection of massive office buildings with comparatively narrow walkways between them, but the quays also have some plazas and bridges out over the water as open spaces by way of contrast.

No two bridges the same, it seems.

Here’s the non-swinging swing bridge the Detroit Bridge.

Detroit Bridge

I checked the list of banned anti-social behaviours and arting wasn’t on there, so I did a few circles of the viewing platform en route across to the other side.

Bridge antisocial

The data I collect are in the form of many (tens of thousands) lines of text and numbers. To help me quickly see what sort of values I got and to relate these back to the landscape, I often convert the data into visual form and view them in Google Earth. Here’s the visualisation of the walk from that first day:

Recce walks

I had two different sets of kit in my rucksack, so each is represented by a different colour. The quick way of understanding what the visualisation shows is to think that the length of the lines corresponds to the extent to which the GPS signal is being affected by the built environment. It’s also important to remember that the lines can be deflected away from the actual path I took – I didn’t get my feet as wet as some of these traces might suggest! For example, the lines over the water towards the bottom left of the image above, were produced when I walked along the base of the wall of the Imperial War Museum; the effect of this massive piece of architecture being to throw the calculated GPS positions off by several tens of metres.

Imperial War deflections

The imagery currently in Google Earth is somewhat old, showing Media City as it’s being constructed:

buildings to be

I really like this combination of seeing the promise of the buildings that don’t quite exist yet and the invisible effects they then went on to have on the radio waves that also fill that space.

Having retired to my accommodation and spent some time examining spreadsheets and ranges, I returned for day two of the data-collection. This time with two critters.

clear sky

The skies were clearer this time around and I was met by Aliki Chapple, who had generously volunteered to spend the afternoon doing odd things in public places with a stranger off the internet.

Once fully bedecked in our moving wooden sculptures and their fabric slings, we set off to explore.

window reflection

By the end of the afternoon we had completed two different pairs of walks: the first was a bit of an epic loop around the edge of the Quays, mostly encountering different residential environments; and the second was a shorter one centred more on The Lowry and the Media City end of things.

Again we experimented with the effects buildings would have if we walked close to them; but we also encountered smaller masses and also had some interesting conversations with befuddled, inquisitive people we passed on our journeys. This is what Colony is really about: using the critters as a tool and as a permission object to pay attention to and explore the spaces we inhabit. They are also deliberately intended to be a conversation-starter.

Imperial War wall


rusty slabs

Needing somewhere to safely leave the critters whilst we went to find some food, we also had some nice interactions with the staff at The Lowry – the cloakrooms were briefly home to some unusual inhabitants!


Here are the visualisations of all four of the walks:

data vis

I was surprised by how little variation we got in the first, more residential, areas we walked in, although I was naturally expecting the overall effect from buildings to be less pronounced.

data vis

These screenshots are from Google Earth with the 3D buildings layer switched on. This is more up-to-date than the flat, base imagery, and it gives a real sense of that relationship between concrete and line length – check out the area in front of The Lowry (top right in the image above, with the tower) and also alongside the multi-story car park for the Lowry Outlet shopping centre (top centre – the blue lines are me walking from right to left along the base of the carpark wall, and then returning on the opposite side of the water, on the far side of the blocks of flats.):

Here are the lines from all six of the walks – quite a lot of ground covered!

All data

Next steps: converting these lines into code that the exhibition critters will remember and play back.