New smartphone app helps locate public art locations

How do we measure the value of public art? The question intrigued Osama Mujallid, a PhD candidate at Claremont Graduate University’s Center for Information Systems and Technology, so he set about designing an application to do just that.

Guided and assisted by one of his professors at CGU, Lorne Olfman, the 38-year-old Saudi Arabia native created a smartphone application, Public Art Bot, and in April partnered with the city of Claremont to launch a beta version.

The idea behind Public Art Bot is similar to Pokémon GO: users download the app, turn on location services, tool around Claremont, and when they’re near a piece of public art they receive a notification along with a map to find it. Afterward, they have the option to answer some short follow-up questions, with the responses used to determine the “value” of that piece of public art.

“Osama was smart, he went to the city’s public information officer, Bevin Handel,” Mr. Olfman said. “She came up with some committee members from the public art committee. They said they would allow us to claim a connection to the city of Claremont, which was also helpful.”

“When Osama came to me with concept of creating an app to gauge public interaction with public art, I saw it as a valuable tool for our public art program,” Ms. Handel said. “The app enhances a person’s experience with the art while providing information to the city on how the community engages with each artwork.”

Public Art Bot is not yet available on the OS or Android app stores. To get the download link (for OS or Android), send an email to Mr. Mujallid at osama.mujallid@cgu.edu. The grad student said he hopes to have it available on both the App Store and Google Play Store before the end of the year.

The invention of Public Art Bot was, like the saying goes, spurred by necessity.

“Back home in Saudi Arabia, I lived in a public art city,” Mr. Mujallid said. “We have a lot of public art exhibits. Then I lived in Chicago and now Los Angeles, and you just can’t find a lot of public art. It’s kind of a goal for me.”

Most apps are moneymakers, with ad money growing as their popularity builds. But the motivation for Public Art Bot was purely altruistic. “I think it’s hard to be marketed as profitable,” Mr. Mujallid said. “It’s more about the public service.”

The idea took root after Mr. Mujallid and Mr. Olfman were tasked by Los Angeles officials for a project within a data analytics course for the city’s Department of Culture and Public Art. They were looking to see whether there was a way to evaluate how well public art was being valued by Angelenos.

“They had very little data, just lists of public art projects,” Mr. Olfman said. “We were able to give them some input, but mainly the idea we suggested to them was they should have an application that allows people to evaluate, and when they happened to see a public art project they could just give their feedback.”

It turned out LA wasn’t keen on the idea. The pair then regrouped and decided they’d approach Claremont and see if they could do their beta testing here.

“We decided that since Osama is really into valuing government services—that’s part of his bigger picture and concern—and using IT, we would take on the advice that we gave to the city of LA and apply it in Claremont,” Mr. Olfman said.

Claremont was into it, and luckily already had a database of all the public art projects in town. Mr. Mujallid overlaid this onto the app, and in April beta testing began.

“So far so good for now,” Mr. Mujallid said. After the plan to work with LA didn’t pan out, “Dr. Olfman proposed to me to pursue the application. We kicked off the project and we’re working on it up until today. The application is ready, and now we’re in the experiment phase.”

“We’re pretty much doing it on a shoestring budget,” Mr. Olfman aid. “It’s an Osama Mujallid funded project. He’s offering people a $10 Starbucks card for participating in the field study.”

Claremont has a “percent-for-art” program which helps fund art exhibitions and a variety of cultural pursuits in public spaces. In 2014, the city adopted a Public Art Master Plan that established a policy for the selection of public art in the community.

Claremont “allocates a certain amount of money for each public works project to include a public art display,” Mr. Olfman said. “They wanted to know that it’s justified do that, in a sense to up the price of the project by one percent, in Claremont’s case.”

The app can also help municipalities and other governmental bodies determine whether or not a piece of public art is in a good spot.

“One thing we found out about the city of LA’s art is that the general population isn’t really located very close to most projects, or the most expensive projects,” Mr. Olfman said. “And that was another recommendation we gave to them: why don’t you take the one percent but don’t spend it like at [LAX], where they’re doing a $5 billion renovation, and you’re going to have $50 million that they put into their public art there; But how many citizens actually see that?”

The benefits for municipalities are certainly a consideration, but just as important is the simple hope that more folks might find and appreciate public art.

“The big question for us is, will people use such a thing?” Mr. Olfman said. “The concept is good, but will they actually use it? And that’s what we’re testing it at this point.”

Mr. Mujallid hopes to be graduating with his PhD in December. The Public Art Bot is his senior dissertation, and Mr. Olfman is the chair of his dissertation committee.

“He’ll get his PhD once he finishes the project… hopefully,” the professor said with a laugh. “Hopefully the committee, including me, will give him the go-ahead once he finishes the project to say okay, you don’t have to do any more, you’ve fulfilled the requirements of the dissertation. And he will; He’s been earnest about this.”

To access the app in Claremont, turn on location services, then send an email to Mr. Mujallid at osama.mujallid@cgu.edu for the download link.

If you get near a public art project, and it’s in the database, the app will send you a notification, and provide location directions.

“It’s not pushy or anything,” Mr. Olfman said. “It’s just: if you’re interested, go.”

—Mick Rhodes

mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

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