Mapping Emergency Drinking Water Hydrants

Did you know that San Francisco has 67 fire hydrants that are designed for emergency drinking water in case of an earthquake-scale disaster? Neither did I. That’s because just about no one knows about these hydrants.

While scouring the web for Cistern locations — as part my Water Works Project*, which will map out the San Francisco water infrastructure and data-visualize the physical pipes and structures that keep the H2O moving in our city — I found this list.

I became curious.


I couldn’t find a map of these hydrants *anywhere* — except for an odd Foursquare map that linked to a defunct website.

I decided to map them myself, which was not terribly difficult to do.

Since Water Works is a project for the Creative Code Fellowship with Stamen DesignGray Area and Autodesk and I’m collaborating with Stamen, mapping is essential for this project. I used Leaflet and Javascript. It’s crude but it works — the map does show the locations of the hydrants (click on the image to launch the map).

The map, will get better, but at least this will show you where the nearest emergency drinking hydrant is to your home.


Apparently, these emergency hydrants were developed in 2006 as part of a 1 million dollar program. These hydrants are tied to some of the most reliable drinking water mains.

Yesterday, I paid a visit to three hydrants in my neighborhood. They’re supposed to be marked with blue drops, but only 1 out of the 3 were properly marked.

Hydrant #46: 16th and Bryant, no blue dropIMG_0022

Hydrant #53, Precita & Folsom, has a blue dropIMG_0016

Hydrant #51, 23rd & Treat, no blue drop, with decorative stickerIMG_0011

I’ve heard that in case of an city-wide emergency, the SFPUC is supposed to open up these hydrants but would this really happen?

I’m ordering an adjustable fire hydrant wrench and packing it in my emergency earthquake kit, so I can be helpful for the “just in case” scenario.

FH_Hydrant Wrench_1

Oh yes, and I’m not the first to wonder about these hydrants. Check out this video from a few years ago.


Modeling Cisterns

How do you construct a 3D model of something that lives underground and only exists in a handful of pictures taken from the interior? This was my task for the Cisterns of San Francisco last week.

The backstory: have you ever seen those brick circles in intersections and wondered what the heck they mean? I sure have.

It turns out that underneath each circle is an underground cistern. There are 170 or so* of them spread throughout the city. They’re part of the AWSS (Auxiliary Water Supply System) of San Francisco, a water system that exists entirely for emergency use.

The cisterns are just one aspect of my research for Water Works, which will map out the San Francisco water infrastructure and data-visualize the physical pipes and structures that keep the H2O moving in our city.

This project is part of my Creative Code Fellowship with Stamen Design, Gray Area and Autodesk.


Many others have written about the cisterns: Atlas Obscura, Untapped Cities, Found SF, and the cisterns even have their own Wikipedia page, albeit one that needs some edits.

The original cisterns, about 35 or so, were built in the 1850s, after a series of great fires ravaged the city, located in the Telegraph Hill to Rincon Hill area. In the next several decades they were largely unused, but the fire department filled them up with water for a “just in case” scenario.

Meanwhile, in the late 19th century as San Francisco rapidly developed into a large city, it began building a pressurized hydrant-based fire system, which was seen as many as a more effective way to deliver water in case of a fire. Many thought of the cisterns as antiquated and unnecessary.

However, when the 1906 earthquake hit, the SFFD was soon overwhelmed by a fire that tore through the city. The water mains collapsed. The old cisterns were one of the few sources of reliable water.

After the earthquake, the city passed bonds to begin construction of the AWSS — the separate water system just for fire emergencies. In addition to special pipes and hydrants fed from reservoirs for hydrants, the city constructed about 140 more underground cisterns.

Cisterns are disconnected nodes from the network, with no pipes and are maintained by the fire department, which presumably fill them every year. I’ve heard that some are incredibly leaky and others are watertight.

What do they look like inside? This is the *only* picture I can find anywhere and is of a cistern in the midst of seismic upgrade work. This one was built in 1910 and holds 75,000 gallons of water, the standard size for the cisterns. They are HUGE. As you can surmise from this picture, the water is not for drinking.cistern(Photographer: Robin Scheswohl; Title: Auxiliary Water supply system upgrade, San Francisco, USA)

Since we can’t see the outside of an underground cistern, I can only imagine what it might look like. My first sketch looked something like this.

cistern_drawingI approached Taylor Stein, Fusion 360 product evangelist at Autodesk, who helped me make my crude drawing come to life. I printed it out on one of the Autodesk 3D printers and lo and behold it looks like this: a double hamburger with a nipple on top. Arggh! Back to the virtual drawing board.IMG_0010I scoured the interwebs and found this reference photograph of an underground German cistern. It’s clearly smaller than the ones in San Francisco, but it looks like it would hold water. The form is unique and didn’t seem to connote something other than a vessel-that-holds-water.800px-Unterirdische_ZisterneOnce again, Taylor helped me bang this one out — within 45 minutes, we had a workable model in Fusion 360. We made ours with slightly wider dimensions on the top cone. The lid looks like a manhole.


Within a couple hours, I had some 3D prints ready. I printed out several sizes, scaling the height to for various aesthetic tests.


This was my favorite one. It vaguely looks like cooking pot or a tortilla canister, but not *very* much. Those three rectangular ridges, parked at 120-degree angles, give it an unusual form


Now, it’s time to begin the more arduous project of mapping the cisterns themselves. And the tough part is still finishing the software that maps the cisterns into 3D space and exports them as an STL with some sort of binding support structure.

* I’ve only been able to locate 169 cisterns. Some reports state that there are 170 and others that there are 173 and 177.

Data Miner, Water Detective

This summer, I’m working on a Creative Code Fellowship with Stamen Design, Gray Area and Autodesk. The project is called Water Works, which will map and data-visualize the San Francisco water infrastructure using 3D-printing and the web.

Finding water data is harder than I thought. Like detective Gittes in the movie Chinatown, I’m poking my nose around and asking everyone about water. Instead of murder and slimy deals, I am scouring the internet and working with city government. I’ve spent many hours sleuthing and learning about the water system in our city.


In San Francisco, where this story takes place, we have three primary water systems. Here’s an overview:

The Sewer System is owned and operated by the SFPUC. The DPW provides certain engineering services. This is a combined stormwater and wastewater system. Yup, that’s right, the water you flush down the toilet goes into the same pipes as the the rainwater. Everything gets piped to a state-of-the art wastewaster treatment plant. Amazingly the sewer pipes are fed almost entirely by gravity, taking advantage of the natural landscape of the city.

The Auxiliary Water Supply System (AWSS) was built in 1908 just after the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. It is an entire water system that is dedicated solely to firefighting. 80% of the city was destroyed not by earthquake itself, but by the fires that ravaged the city. The fires rampaged through the city mostly because the water mains collapsed. Just afterwards, the city began construction on a separate this infrastructure for combatting future fires. It consists of reservoirs that feed an entire network of pipes to high-pressure fire hydrants and also includes approximately 170 underground cisterns at various intersections in the city. This incredible separate water system is unique to San Francisco.

The Potable Water System, a.k.a. drinking water is the water we get from our faucets and showers. It comes from the Hetch Hetchy — a historic valley but also a reservoir and water system constructed from 1913-1938 to provide water to San Francisco. This history is well-documented, but what I know little about is how the actual drinking water gets piped into San Francisco. homes Also, the San Francisco water is amongst the most safe in the world, so you can drink directly from your tap.

Given all of this, where is the story? This is the question that I asked folks at Stamen, Autodesk and Gray Area during a hyper-productive brainstorming session last week. Here’s the whiteboard with the notes. The takeaways, as folks call it are, are below and here I’m going to get nitty-gritty into process.

(whiteboard brainstorming session with Stamen)


(1) In my original proposal, I had envisioned a table-top version of the entire water infrastucture: pipes, cisterns, manhole chambers, reservoirs as a large-scale sculpture, printed in panels. It was kindly pointed out to me by the Autodesk Creative Projects team that this is unfeasible. I quickly realized the truth of this: 3D prints are expensive, time-consuming to clean and fragile. Divide the sculptural part of the project into several small parts.

(2) People are interested in the sewer system. Someone said, “I want to know if you take a dump at Nob Hill, where does the poop go?” It’s universal. Everyone poops, even the Queen of England and even Batman. It’s funny, it’s gross, it’s entirely human. This could be accessible to everyone.

(3) Making visible the invisible or revealing what’s in plain sight. The cisterns in San Francisco are one example. Those brick circles that you see in various intersections are actually 75,000 gallon underground cisterns. Work on a couple of discrete urban mapping projects.

(4) Think about focusing on making a beautiful and informative 3D map / data-visualization of just 1 square mile of San Francisco infrastructure. Hone on one area of the city.

(5) Complex systems can be modeled virtually. Over the last couple weeks, I’ve been running code tests, talking to many people in city government and building out an entire water modeling systems in C++ using OpenFrameworks. It’s been slow, deliberate and arduous. Balance the physical models with a complex virtual one.

I’m still not sure exactly where this project is heading, which is to be expected at this stage. For now, I’m mining data and acting as a detective. In the meantime, here is the trailer for Chinatown, which gives away the entire plot in 3 minutes.


Mapping Manholes

The last week has been a flurry of coding, as I’m quickly creating a crude but customized data-3D modeling application for Water Works — an art project for my Creative Code Fellowship with Stamen Design, Gray Area and Autodesk.

This project build on my Data Crystals sculptures, which transform various public datasets algorithmically into 3D-printable art objects. For this artwork, I used Processing with the Modelbuilder libraries to generate STL files. It was a fairly easy coding solution, but I ran into performance issues along tje wau.

But Processing tends to choke up at managing 30,000 simple 3D cubes. My clustering algorithms took hours to run. Because it isn’t compiled into machine code and is instead interpreted, it has layers of inefficiency.

I bit the coding bullet and this week migrated my code to OpenFrameworks (an open source C++ environment). I’ve used OF before, but never with 3D work. There are still lots of gaps in the libraries, specifically the STL exporting, but I’ve had some initial success, woo-hoo!

Here are all the manholes, the technical term being “sewer nodes”, mapped into 3D space using GIS lat/lon and elevation coordinates. The clear indicator that this is San Francisco, and not Wisconsin, which this mapping vaguely resembles is the swath of empty space that is Golden Gate Park.

What hooked me was that “a-ha” moment where 3D points rendered properly on my screen. I was on a plane flight home from Seattle and involuntarily emitted an audible yelp. Check out the 3D mapping. There’s a density of nodes along the Twin Peaks, and I accentuated the z-values to make San Francisco look even more hilly and to understand the location of the sewer chambers even better.

Sewer nodes are just the start. I don’t have the connecting pipes in there just yet, not to mention the cisterns and other goodies of the SF water infrastructure.

water_works_nodes_screen_shotOf course, I want to 3D print this. By increasing the node size — the cubic dimensions of each manhole location, I was able to generate a cohesive and 3D-printable structure. This is the Meshlab export with my custom-modified STL export code. I never thought I’d get this deep into 3D coding, but now, I know all sorts of details, like triangular winding and the right-hand rule for STL export.3d_terrain_meshlabAnd here is the 3D print of the San Francisco terrain, like the Data Crystals, with many intersecting cubes.

3d_terrain_better It doesn’t have the aesthetic crispness of the Data Crystals project, but this is just a test print — very much a work-in-progress.


Creative Code Fellowship: Water Works Proposal

Along with 3 other new media artists and creative coding experts, I was recently selected to be a Creative Code Fellow for 2014 — a project pioneered by Gray Area (formerly referred to as GAFFTA and now in a new location in the Mission District).

Each of us is paired with a partnering studio, which provides a space and creative direction for our proposed project. The studio that I’m pleased to be working with is Stamen Design, a leader in the field of aesthetics, mapping and data-visualization.

I’ll be also continuing my residency work at Autodesk at Pier 9, which will be providing support for this project as well.

My proposed project is called “Water Works” — a 3D-printed data visualization of San Francisco’s water system infrastructure, along with some sort of web component.



Creative Code Fellowship Application Scott Kildall

Project Proposal (250 limit)
My proposed project “Water Works” is a 3D data visualization of the complex network of pipes, aqueducts and cisterns that control the flow of water into our homes and out of our toilets. What lies beneath our feet is a unique combined wastewater system — where stormwater mixes with sewer lines and travels to a waste treatment plant, using gravitational energy from the San Francisco hills.

This dynamic flow is the circulatory system of the organism that is San Francisco. As we are impacted by climate change, which escalates drought and severe rainstorms, combined with population growth, how we obtain our water and dispose of it is critical to the lifeblood of this city.

Partnering with Autodesk, which will provide materials and shop support, I will write code, which will generate 3D prints from municipal GIS data. I imagine ghost-like underground 3D landscapes with thousands of threads of water — essentially flow data — interconnected to larger cisterns and aqueducts. The highly retinal work will invite viewers to explore the infrastructure the city provides. The end result might be panels that snap together on a tabletop for viewers to circumnavigate and explore.

The GIS data is available, though not online, from San Francisco and already I’ve obtained cooperation from SFDPW about providing some infrastructure data necessary to realize this project.

While my focus will be on the physical portion of this project, I will also build an interactive web-based version from the 3D data, making this a hybrid screen-physical project.

Why are you interested in participating in this fellowship? (150 word limit)
The fellowship would give me the funding, visibility and opportunity of working under the umbrage of two progressive organizations: Gray Area and Stamen Design. I would expand my knowledge, serve the community and increase my artistic potential by working with members of these two groups, both of which have a progressive vision for art and design in my longtime home of San Francisco.

Specifically, I wish to further integrate 3D printing into the data visualization conversation. With the expertise of Stamen, I hope to evolve my visualization work at Autodesk. The 3D-printing technology makes possible what has hitherto been impossible to create and has enormous possibilities to materialize the imaginary.

Additionally some of the immersive classes (HTML5, Javascript, Node.js) will be helpful in solidifying my web-programming skills so that I can produce the screen-based portion of this proposal.

What experience makes this a good fit for you? (150 word limit)
I have deep experience in producing both screen-based and physical data visualizations. While at the Exploratorium, I worked on many such exhibits for a general audience.

One example is a touch-screen exhibit called “Seasons of Plankton”, which shows how plankton species in the Bay change over the year, reflecting a diverse ecosystem of microscopic organisms. I collaborated with scientists and visitor evaluators to determine the optimal way to tell this story. I performed all of the coding work and media production for this successful piece.

While at Autodesk, my focus has been creating 3D data visualizations with my custom code that transforms public data sets into “Data Crystals” (these are the submitted images). This exploration favors aesthetics over legibility. I hope to build upon this work and create physical forms, which help people see the dynamics of a complex urban water system to invite curiosity through beauty.


@SelfiesBot: It’s Alive!!!

@SelfiesBot began tweeting last week and already the results have surprised me.

Selfies Bot is a portable sculpture which takes selfies and then tweets the images. With custom electronics and a long arm that holds a camera that points at itself, it is a portable art object that can travel to parks, the beach and to different cities.

I quickly learned that people want to pose with it, even in my early versions with a cardboard head (used to prove that the software works).

Last week, in an evening of experimentation, I added text component, where each Twitter pic gets accompanied by text that I scrape from Tweets with the #selfie hashtag.

This produces delightful results, like spinning a roulette wheel: you don’t know what the text will be until the Twitter website pubishes the tweet. The text + image gives an entirely new dimension to the project. The textual element acts as a mirror into the phenomenon of the self-portrait, reflecting the larger culture of the #selfie.

Produced while an artist-in-residence at Autodesk.


And this is the final version! Just done.


This is the “robot hand” that holds the camera on a 2-foot long gooseneck arm.





Materiality of the Readymake

“Readymake: Duchamp Chess Set”  — a collaboration between Scott Kildall (me) and Bryan Cera — recreates Duchamp’s custom hand-carved chess set from a photograph as a 3D model. The chess set itself has been lost and only exists in the photograph. We are dubbing this technique a “Readymake”, where a lost object gets recreated as a 3D model for anyone to print.

Last week I solicited a call for Making Your Own Duchamp Chess Set, and here is a preview of three new chess sets that folks are recreating across the world.

Though the object exists digitally, as a 3D model, the material processes involved make each 3D print unique, such that the translation between the virtual and the real exhibits traces of the machine processes.

This knight piece, printed by Tom Burtonwood looks like the offspring of a white knight with its black counterpart. I’m fascinated by the schmutz, the mutations and errata of the 3D process. Virtual DNA is perfect but actual physics trumps code.


Compare this with my print on the Objet 500 printer — using UV-cured resin — which looks “better” because it uses a support material to encase the overhangs of the 3D print. Still, there is a 3D texture to this print. If you look closely, you can discern that the knight was printed on its side such that you see swirls of 3D residue. The photographic eye has bionic capabilities, capturing what our own eyes cannot. At what point does “reality” end: with  our own perception, the zoomed-in color-corrected image or perfect 3D geometry?


Pete Prodoehl created this pawn on his MakerGear RepRap Prusa. To avoid overhangs, Pete sliced the model in half, printed two sections, then adhered them together. The wavy lines are part of the way that this specific printer fuses its material together. He painted the final piece with metallic silver spray paint. Pete interpreted this project as one where the hand of the artist is involved in the print. I didn’t expect this, but this is what happens with the Readymake concept: where we put the 3D model online and ask others to reproduce it. Here is more from Pete on his process.

pawn_construction pawn_metallic_silver

And here is Patrick Lichty’s Army of Pawns, printed on a Rep2 The shot doesn’t capture the detail on the material, but I’m looking forward to seeing more from Lichty. He’s not slicing the pawns as Peter did, so there’s some  spaghetti in the overhang.lichty_pawns


World Data Crystals

I just finished three more Data Crystals, produced during my residency at Autodesk. This set of three are data visualizations of world datasets.

This first one captures all the population of cities in the world. After some internet sleuthing, I found a comprehensive .csv file of all of the cities by lat/long and their population and I worked on mapping the 30,000 or so data points into 3D space.

I rewrote my Data Crystal Generation program to translate the lat/long values into a sphere of world data points. I had to rotate the cubes to make them appear tangential to the globe. This forced me to re-learn high school trig functions, argh!

world_dcWhat I like about the way this looks is that the negative space invites the viewer into the 3D mapping. The Sahara Desert is empty, just like the Atlantic Ocean. Italy has no negative space. There are no national boundaries or geographical features, just cubes and cities.

I sized each city by area, so that the bigger cities are represented as larger cubes. Here is the largest city in the world, Tokyo


This is the clustering algorithm in action. Running it realtime in Processing takes several hours. This is what the video would look like if I were using C++ instead of Java.

I’m happy with the clustered Data Crystal. The hole in the middle of it is result of the gap in data created by the Pacific Ocean.


The next Data Crystal maps of all of the world airports. I learned that the United States has about 20,000 airports. Most of these are small, unpaved runways. I still don’t know why.

Here is a closeup of the US, askew with Florida in the upper-left corner.


I performed similar clustering functions and ended up with this Data Crystal, which vaguely resembles an airplane.

world_airports_data_crystalThe last dataset, which is not pictured because my camera ran out of batteries and my charger was at home represents all of the nuclear detonations in the world.

I’ll have better pictures of these crystals in the next week or so. Stay tuned.


Make your own Duchamp Chess Set!

We have uploaded the STL files for our “Readymake: Duchamp Chess Set” — a collaboration between Scott Kildall and Bryan Cera — to Thingiverse:

We invite anyone with a 3D printer and an interest in the project to 3D print a set of Duchamp chess pieces.

The concept of the Readymake is that we are transforming a photograph of a lost object in time (Duchamp’s hand-carved chess set) into a set of 3D-printable objects that anyone with a 3D printer can reproduce. Each 3D print takes on different material properties due to the translation process from virtual to physical, making variations on these “art objects”.

We want to both document and share this experimentation in translation.

This another project that I’ve created at my artist residency at Pier 9 with Autodesk.


If you want to join  this project, just download the STLs and print out one of each piece: rook, queen, king, bishop, knight and pawn.

Line them up like the original photograph below, try to aim for good lighting (outdoor ambient is best if you don’t have access to a lighting kit) and send us the photo.

Contact me for details and I can answer any questions and give you an email address for the photo.

I’d specifically like to get your bio information, a photograph or two and the type of printer and materials used, which we will then feature.


(3D printed by Scott Kildall using an Object 500 and VeroClear)


If you want to do two sets of pieces, that’s even better. The materials can be whatever color you want: black and white, green and blue, etc. If you do a second set, please flip the knight like the image below.


(3D printed by Scott Kildall using an Object 500 and VeroWhite/VeroBlack)combined



IEEE Milestone for my dad, Gary Kildall

This plaque in Pacific Grove, California, is the IEEE Milestone honoring my dad’s computer work in the 1970s. He was a true inventor and laid the foundation for the personal computer architecture that we now take for granted.

Gary Kildall’s is the 139th IEEE Milestone. These awards honor the key historical achievements in electrical and electronic engineering that have changed the world, and include the invention of the battery by Volta, Marconi’s work with the telegraph, and the invention of the transistor.

More pictures plus a short write-up of the ceremony can be found here:


The dedication event was emotional and powerful, with several of my father’s close colleagues from decades ago gathered to recount his contributions. I knew most of the stories and his work, but there were several aspects of his methodology that I had never heard before.

For example, I learned that my dad was not only a software programmer, but a systems architect, and would spend days diagramming data structures and logic trees on sheets of paper, using a door blank on sawhorses as his work table.

After fastidious corrections, and days poring over the designs, he would embark on programming binges to code what he had designed. And the final program would often work flawlessly on the first run.

With a PhD from the University of Washington, lots of hard work, incredible focus on long-term solutions, plus extraordinary talent, Gary created a vision of how to bring the personal computer to the desks of millions of users, and shared his enthusiasm with just about everyone he met.

My dad turned his passion into two key products: CP/M (the operating system), and BIOS (the firmware interface that lets different hardware devices talk to the same operating system). From this combination, people could, for the first time, load the same operating system onto any home computer.


The IEEE and David Laws from the Computer History Museum did a tremendous job of pulling in an amazing contingent of computer industry pioneers from the early days of personal computing to commemorate this occasion.

At the dedication, my sister Kristin and I had a chance to reconnect with many former Digital Research employees, and I think everyone felt a sense of happiness, relief, catharsis, and dare I say, closure for my dad’s work, which has often been overlooked by the popular press since his premature death in 1994, right in the middle of his career.

My mother, Dorothy McEwen, ran Digital Research as its business manager, to complement my dad the inventor. Together they changed computer history. It was here in Pacific Grove, 1974 that Gary Kildall loaded CP/M from a tape drive onto a floppy disk and booted it up for the first time: the birth of the personal computer.

If you find yourself in Pacific Grove, take a visit to 801 Lighthouse Avenue, Digital Research headquarters in the 1970s, and you can see this milestone for yourself.