A Taxi's Suspension of Judgement

September 25, 2014

This post is a part of a series from Vlad Seghete about his onboarding project, titled Honking Vocabulary

Every new employee of Datascope goes through an onboarding process for the first three months, a big part of which is a self-defined project. This approach has several goals:

  • positioning new team members to learning new things
  • giving everyone an opportunity to collaborate
  • giving us all some fun project to work on for the next three months while
  • giving us something to share with the world

Additionally, given my robotics background, we decided I would try on something where I collect and analyze real data from real sensors.

Keeping these goals in mind, how does one come up with an awesome topic, one that is cool enough, doable enough, challenging enough, and dare I say, extreme enough? A tough creative challenge, perfectly suited for a brainstorm! And one of the most important parts of brainstorming, as I came to learn, is suspending judgement of other people’s ideas, as this leads to free association and gives a significant boost to the creativity of the session.

Because a key goal of the project is for me to learn how to work with sensor data, we started the conversation by filling the left hand side of the whiteboard with all the possible sensors we could use for this project: GPS, temperature, pressure, force, accelerometers, gyros, acidity, RFID scanners (or anything you can your hands on at Sparkfun). At times, we delved into what I thought was likely unhelpful, including microwave antennas and Geiger counters, but these ideas sparked ideas for other sensors, like microphones and cameras. It was really exciting to see how suspending judgement helped the creative process. As an added benefit, it would definitely be amusing to examine this:

How radioactive am I?

After setting the stage with a broad set of sensors that we could use, we started throwing ideas at the board in the form of post-its (this was new to me, but holy shit can these guys cram a lot on one post-it) for different ways we could use sensors to measure something interesting that could be analyzed and visualized in three months. Toward the end, some common themes emerged and we reorganized the post-its into these broader themes and ended up with something like this:

whiteboard.jpg

As an avid rock climber, one of the large idea clusters that came out of the brainstorm involved designing rock climbing gear. Most of these ideas revolved around adding a force/shear sensor in the climbing shoes and processing the recorded data to help climbers train better and improve their footwork. As the person who would wear said shoes, I wasn’t terribly excited about this idea, but my judgement was suspended so who was I to critique.

There were plenty more ideas, ranging from making a Datascoper’s house safer against burglary to studying the efficacy of different plant fertilizers. These were suggestions like tracking our coffee consumption and correlating it with our productivity or figuring out when the train arrives at the station outside our window. In fact, a large amount of post-its displayed cute drawings of (CTA) trains.

A cute drawing of a train Another cute drawing of a train

Just then, as we were listening for the train, a taxi-cab traffic tie up below was generating a barrage of car honks. The intersection of Adams and Wells is a very busy one, and it creates quite a bit of traffic noise. The serendipitous honking immediately shifted everyone’s thinking: could we use the traffic noise to somehow gain some interesting insights? Several ideas quickly emerged, among which:  

  1. categorize honks by make and model of vehicle and then figure out which type of car honks the most[1]
  2. look at the length of each honk and correlate it with the time of day, figuring out when road rage tends to manifest itself
  3. find the honk pattern that people use the most: two short beeps and one long, three long ones followed by a short beep, or maybe most stop after a short beep
  4. place sensors at different geographical locations and see if this “vocabulary” changes based on neighborhood, city or country

So by suspending judgement, we were able to come up with a project that I was really excited about that can accomplish all of the goals we set out to achieve. What started as geiger counters and anti-burglary systems, turned into measuring my climbing routine, and transitioned into listening to trains and quantifying honking vocabulary. Lesson learned: allow and encourage all ideas, no matter how outlandish, as they will eventually give rise to solid and exciting topics.

  1. It’s really just taxis. This (totally legit) flowchart shows it:

    flowchart.png

contributors to this post

headshot of Vlad Seghete
Vlad
headshot of Gabriel Gaster
Gabriel
headshot of Aaron Wolf
Aaron
headshot of Dean Malmgren
Dean