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MKThink’s Innovative Internship Program

Spatial Temporal Mapping KitAbove, Zachary Moore’s Spatial and Temporal Mapping Kit.

MKThink’s unique internship program is more than an opportunity for young designers to gain professional experience. About half of an intern’s hours are dedicated to a research project that addresses a topic in a way that advances the understanding of the issue in question, provides guidance to MKThink in regard to approaching the issue, or tests concepts through a physical installation. With prompts including, “How can we design libraries to perform in 21st century learning environments?” and, “What are the essential characteristics, design features, and elements of innovation-inspiring space?” our interns embark on a summer-long journey of discovery and design, culminating in a published report and presentation to the firm. As our 2014 interns embark on their summer work here at the office, we thought we’d take a look back at what our fabulous interns accomplished last year!

Willy Mann, now a full-time Strategist in our office, began his tenure at MKThink as an intern interested in the reinvention of the library. His Playbrary(TM) fosters lifelong learning, empowers children, and provides an active and dynamic learning environment. Read about it in full above!

Rhiannon Fleming interned with our architecture studio last year; her focus was on how the physical environment could foster engagement and creativity in the workplace. Check out her final report in full above!

Last but not least, Zachary Moore, now a full-fledged designer here at MKThink, conceived and created a sensor kit that would allow better analysis of behavior factors in the built environment to determine whether or not designed spaces are used for their intended purposes. Check out the kit and its potential applications above!

Every Corner, Every City

Crowdsourced air quality sensors provide opportunity to fill gaps left by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in data resolution and availability
by Sean Dasey


Fire at the Chevron Refinery in Richmond, CA.

Fire and smoke erupted from an accident at the Chevron Refinery in Richmond, CA, in August 2012.

In 2014, the American Lung Association ranked Fresno, CA as the most polluted of 277 metropolitan areas in America for 24-hour particle pollution. [1] Salinas, CA was ranked the cleanest. Fresno and Salinas are only separated by 100 miles. This underscores the fact that air quality can vary greatly across nearby regions.

Although the current EPA air quality monitoring network captures differences across regions, it is not equipped to capture differences across localities and neighborhoods. For example, the 9-county San Francisco Bay Area, home to 7.5 million residents, has only 39 stations. In fact, this network failed to provide sufficiently detailed neighborhood scale air quality data during the August 6, 2012 Chevron refinery fire in Richmond, CA (pictured above), after which 11,000 nearby residents made emergency room visits for respiratory issues. [2] The closest EPA particulates monitor was located 2 miles away from the refinery, and the results took two weeks to analyze.

Historically, the EPA has focused on capturing air quality data on a regional scale by placing several monitoring stations per county, away from major roads or industrial emission sources in order to measure region-wide averages. The current EPA network of stations, however, is not designed to reveal how pollution sources affect the air quality of nearby neighborhoods with any real specificity.

Regional Weather Stations

Map of Bay Area District Air Monitor Sites; the dots on the map indicate where at least one full year of high quality wind speed, wind direction, and temperature data are archived that are suitable for modeling purposes. Source:

One possible solution to this problem would be to crowdsource cheaper sensors to fill in the gaps between sporadically placed EPA stations.

In 2012, an open-source carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide sensor called the Air Quality Egg was successfully crowd funded on Kickstarter, and was named “Best of Kickstarter: 2012”. Although the Egg is not calibrated and therefore doesn’t give accurate readings on an individual basis the way EPA sensors do, it is several orders of magnitude cheaper than a calibrated sensor. This gives citizen scientists the opportunity to deploy them at a much larger scale than the existing EPA station network.

Egg Systems Diagram

The Air Quality Egg began as a Kickstarter-funded sensor that is far less expensive and easier to use than traditional air quality monitors.

Louisville, KY, a historically industrial city that was once described as “smoky and blackened” by a visiting Charles Dickens, is emerging today as a leader in utilizing Eggs to monitor air quality on a neighborhood scale. On April 24, 2014, the nonprofit Institute for Healthy Air, Water and Soil, led by philanthropist Christy Brown and endorsed by Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, announced the deployment of 100 Eggs around Louisville. [3] They will be deployed strategically, in neighborhoods downwind of heavily industrial zones.

The Egg is one example of a crowdsourced sensor contributing to an emerging network of sensors providing environmental and health data at the neighborhood scale. In Louisville, the Institute for Healthy Air, Water and Soil has partnered with the Louisville Asthma Data Innovation Project to correlate Egg data with time and location data from Bluetooth enabled asthma inhalers. As opposed to the traditional method of accumulating respiratory health data from county hospitals to get regional-scale statistics, this new method will lead to more precise location based data to pinpoint specific neighborhoods where air quality and respiratory health are concerns.

Athsma Incidence in Louisville, KY

Hotspots of Athsma incidence in Louisville, KY.

Using RoundhouseOne’s proprietary data management system, 4Daptive, we can analyze correlations between data from the Egg we’ve deployed in Louisville and our larger sensor network, measuring thermal comfort, foot traffic, and outdoor weather conditions. 4Daptive provides the ability to manage data through an organized database, analyze correlations between multiple data sources, and produce user-created charts accompanied by customizable statistical outputs.

Limitations of available data have traditionally forced air quality analyses to be done on a regional scale. The emergence of localized, neighborhood-scale data will provide opportunities for new insight on how air quality affects our daily lives.

Sean Dasey is a Data Analyst at RoundhouseOne, MKThink’s in-house data analytics team. His work focuses on studying the effect of building design on thermal comfort, indoor air quality, and energy use.


[1] American Lung Association. “State of the Air 2014.” April 30, 2014.
[2] Bruggers, James. “Looking for Air Pollution Hot Spots with Micro-Monitors.” The Courier-Journal dopen-source April 27, 2014.
[3] Bulwa, Demian & Kane, Will. “Refinery Smoke Blew Past Air Monitors.” San Francisco Chronicle August 29, 2012.


Air Quality Egg location visualization and information:
Institute for Healthy Air, Water, and Soil, with interesting data on air quality in Kentucky:
State of the Air, by the American Lung Association:


A Closer Look at Mozilla’s New MKThink-designed Workspace in Mountain View

Mozilla’s New Workspace in Mountain View from Nexus 1 on Vimeo.

Mozilla's new workspace in Mountain View, California was coded with the same care, passion, open source, and collaboration methodologies for which Mozilla codes its software products. This clip provides a glimpse into the strategic and creative process that maps Mozilla's unique culture into collaborative workspace.


Drought Awareness: Data is Emerging, Design Should Follow

Christopher Damien by Christopher Damien

It’s hardly news that California is in the throes of a serious drought. California’s final Department of Water Resources snow survey of 2014, published on May 1, reported that the statewide snowpack’s water content is at 18 percent of average for the date. Such arid circumstances were anticipated after an April 1 snow survey found water content was only at 32 percent. This is troubling news considering that California receives about a third of its hydration from these water-containing snowpacks.(1)

Water agencies have experimented with and implemented several methods for budgeting water. “Allocation pricing,” for example, is a method of budgeting water in terms of how much users ought to be using; based on geography and demographics, a user is allocated a certain amount of water. With overconsumption rates increase dramatically. With these methods, water agencies are attempting to fiscally wake consumers to the severity of our current situation. However, consumers in the Bay Area have not yet cut water use by the 10-20% requested by San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. Rationing this resource will certainly prove to be a challenge for the Californian’s varied degrees of thirst.

Human behavior will be the most difficult barrier to water security. As accurate monitoring increases our awareness of the impacts of overconsumption, the design of our built systems must follow suit. This necessary shift will only result from a clear evaluation of the various water realities throughout California.

Can design not only make systems more efficient, but make consumers more aware of how precious this resource is becoming?

Design to adequately address water scarcity must be rooted in data. The first step will be to raise awareness of where water is coming from, then reevaluate the practicality of these distances.

Where is your water coming from?

SPUR_HetchHetchyDiagram of the Hetch Hetchy Water System, courtesy of SPUR

San Francisco receives 80% of its water from the Hetch Hetchy Project, requiring transport of over 150 miles. This transport of water over a large distance is a peculiar characteristic of urban centers throughout the American West, one that is largely an artifact of yester year’s inclination for grand, if not hubristic, engineering.

What are the opportunities other than major engineering feats of piping water from distant climes?

This is the design challenge posed by Peter and Hadley Arnold of the Arid Lands Institute, who recently unveiled their program for design that substantially accounts for both geographic aridity and actual local rainfall in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley Basin, entitled “The Case for Divining LA.” In it, they exhibit a model of storm water runoff based on 30-year precipitation data, visualizing the path of runoff and opportunity for harvest and use. This high resolution geo-spatial model is part of a larger effort to visualize Southern California’s water reality: “520,000 acre-feet of unused stormwater is sent as discharge to the Pacific Ocean each year, enough to support 500,000 families at current usage rates with no conservation measures in place.”(2)

Their model includes surface runoff as a result of precipitation, surface permeability, and soil types and conditions. This model led the Arid Lands Institute to conclude that “urban stormwater and recycled municipal supplies combined with increased efficiency could meet up to 82 percent of Los Angeles’ water demand,” 82% that would not need to be piped via the 400 mile Los Angeles Aqueduct.

AridLandsInstituteGeo-Spatial Model of Los Angeles Water Sources, courtesy of  Arid Lands Institute

Efforts like this will be needed across geographies and municipalities throughout California and throughout the heating world as drought and aridity become more prevalent characteristics of life. These modeling efforts offer awareness of real resource surplus and scarcity, allowing design solutions to be based in reliable data.

In our own work, MKThink employs evidence-based design practices and seeks to enable user behavior through design rather than force it. We ask, how might design offer aesthetic awareness of drought? How might design offer awareness of distant geographies impacted by exorbitant consumption? How might we avail ourselves of the missed opportunities outside our doors?

Real knowledge of a legitimate drought and real knowledge of consumption patterns and sources will hopefully allow people to quench their thirst accordingly and stop watering their lawns; above all, it may finally force people to take responsibility for where they decide to put down roots.

(1) California Department of Water Resources (DWR), “Year’s Final Snow Survey Comes up Dry: 3-Year Drought Retains Grip as Summer Approaches”
(2) Arnold, Hadley and Peter, “Pivot: Reconceiving Water Scarcity as Design Opportunity: Mapping a More Absorbent Landscape,” BOOM Fall 2013, pgs. 95-101

Navigating the various sources of California’s water: Water Education Foundation.
High-Resoution Geo-Spatial Model of SoCal’s Water Reality: by Arid Lands Institute.

Steven Kelley Discusses the Recently Completed Flexible Learning Hall at Stanford University’s School of Education

Steven Kelley discusses the recently completed flexible learning environment at Stanford University’s School of Education from Nexus 1 on Vimeo.

Some say that well over half of the nation’s school & university space is functionally obsolete – and as these facilities age the problem only gets worse.

At MKThink we are often presented with the challenge of how to transform dysfunctional space into high performance space once again – and the upside potential for students, educators and learning institutions alike is huge. At Stanford’s School of Education, educators have sought more effective ways to connect teaching to comprehension and have embraced more interactive forms of learning — group discussion, active participation, and so on; thus, the need for more adaptable space is essential.

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