1 in 5 adults in the United States Faces a mental illness every year.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness is an organization devoted to spreading awareness and support for those affected directly or indirectly by any mental illness. A profound and much needed cause given the stigma surrounding it. When approached by NAMI to concept a web and physical experience for them, I felt honored and intimidated.
The brief was to create an online interactive harmonium, an instrument which fills out chords and harmonic progressions based on a root note. In this case, we needed to figure out what that root note was, so we started with people.
Using social media feeds we can extract a conversation or running dialogue on a specific channel or subject. Narrowing down our search field to people using the hashtag NAMI quickly made us aware of how closed-off this might become and ultimately, this has to represent the people, not just the people talking about NAMI. So we opened it up to a much wider demographic.
We opened our net to the entirety of New York City. We thought; “What would the mood and expressive nature of this iconic city look like if we extracted sentiment data from Twitter?” Sentiment analysis is not a new thing, but using this feed and making it drive an instrument felt entirely new to us. After collecting the tweets posted in the vicinity of New York City, we can extract a general sentiment analysis from them that becomes a simple positive and negative scale. We can then quantize this data onto a traditional melodic bar chart and we’ve got our instrument.
Once the basis for our interactive harmonium is in place, setting out to design it takes on a whole new challenge. Given the context of the content and wanting to create something more meditative and passive, I chose to give the instrument a light and ethereal quality. By taking a music chart and letting it twist and turn in the wind, we created our musical tapestry. As twitter comments are read, it lifts and dips in correlation to the mood of the city.
Our sample set is averaged over a short time period which gives us a note that we can then create a harmony from. When visiting the site, this harmony changes over time while a calming melody is played overtop. The result is a meditative experience providing a background melody to a city’s mood. Users can add their own sentiments and change the melody live on the site. As a data visualization, we even designed the ability to look back in history to see when an exceptionally positive day happened. Was it a nice day or something exciting happened in the news? Now the instrument becomes much more than just a melodic experience and that’s incredibly exciting.
But of course, not content with just doing the ask, I set out to take this whole thing a few steps further. Why not build a physical installation of the NAMI site in a public space with high traffic volumes? The proposal is a number of monolithic towers each housing an LED screen and simply proximity sensor. Walkers are invited to travel through the pillars as the Harmonium displays the current site in real-time. As a user walks between, the tapestry reacts with a subtle shift.
Going even further, we proposed a benefit concert for NAMI one-year after the Harmonium has been active where a guest composer is invited to create an original score derived from an entire year of New York’s sentiment. And of course, behind the orchestra we play the tapestry reacting in real-time to the original score. A fitting end to an uplifting and musically driven endeavor.