ShareThis Page

What's the mood? Instagram entries to gauge city's happiness, with results displayed on the Gulf Tower

| Monday, Feb. 9, 2015, 9:16 p.m.
The Gulf Tower, Downtown, lights up black and gold to coincide with the Pirates scoring and wins.
Tribune-Review
The Gulf Tower, Downtown, lights up black and gold to coincide with the Pirates scoring and wins.

It's not easy to gauge the mood of an entire city.

But, through a new project by the Carnegie Museum of Art, you'll be able to look at the Gulf Tower, Downtown, and find an approximation of Pittsburgh's mood from Feb. 11 to 13. It also can be seen online at tower.cmoa.org.

We've learned since childhood to look up to Gulf Tower and its stepped pyramid-shaped crown lights to check on weather conditions. It's been known to flash to celebrate Pirates home runs and Penguin goals, a mood indicator of sorts.

This week, those lights will gauge our happiness.

“We will read emotional sentiment on Pittsburgh-area Instagram images in real time and control the tower beacon from Feb. 11 to 13,” says Jonathan Gaugler of the Carnegie Museum of Art, who was part of the team that designed the project with curator Tina Kukielski. “Two competing colors will measure positive vs. negative sentiment, acting like a giant ‘mood ring' for the city.”

Green horizontal bars of light will represent positive moods on half of the beacon, while red bars will show negativity.

The project is presented to promote a new exhibit, “Antoine Catala: Distant Feel,” opening on Feb. 14. Catala's first solo museum exhibit in the United States encompasses photography, sculpture and video.

Catala explores the feelings that images evoke — specifically, images from distant places, seen online, that we otherwise have no connection to.

“ ‘Distant Feel' is a rebrand of empathy,” says Catala, a New York-based French artist. “Wars are waged, inequalities increase, all while the ecosystem of screens through which we learn of them expands around us. We become overwhelmed, and our capacity for empathy gets challenged.

“ ‘Distant Feel' is to feel through images, as we so often do. ‘Distant Feel' is also a more focused form of empathy. It acknowledges that it's OK to be detached and encourages us to be more effective in what we feel for.”

David Newbury is the programmer whose algorithm will turn Pittsburgh Instagram comments into data, which will be transmitted to the Gulf Tower's lights.

“We collect the scores from a large sample of people across the area, and we average positive and negative scores,” Newbury says.

“It's important to remember that not everything is positive or negative,” he says. “Sometimes, things are just neutral, and sometimes things can be both. This way, we can track how many positive things people are saying and how many negative things people are saying.

“Once we have that average score, we worked with the technicians at the Gulf Tower to develop an interface to their lighting system that lets us turn that score into a dynamic light show. Depending on what the positive and negative scores are at any time, it will trigger a different animation on the building.”

For Newbury, this is the kind of project that could only happen here in Pittsburgh.

“It's fantastic to be able to do this kind of work here in Pittsburgh,” Newbury says. “I'm one of the Pittsburgh boomerangs — I spent 10 years out of Pittsburgh, working in Chicago and Canada, but I grew up here. Downtown Pittsburgh's always been a special place for me.

“I remember my mother explaining how to tell what the weather was going to be using the Gulf Tower lights when I was a kid. It was amazing to me that the buildings themselves could be used to communicate information. Knowing that I now have the opportunity to talk to the city, using the city itself, it's an awesome privilege.”

Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at mmachosky@tribweb.com or 412-320-7901.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.