What??? – That Gloriously Stupid Subway Messaging Fixture In Toronto Actually Cost $2 Million

January 19, 2018 by Dave Haynes

Photo – realities:united

I wrote recently about the mind-wobblingly stupid art installation installed but not activated at a new Toronto subway stop. The set-up would allow anyone to walk up to a kiosk and put up a brief eight-character message on a set of suspended lights.

Naughty and nasty messages would, of course, ensue.

The installation at the city’s just-opened Pioneer Village station serves as functional lighting, but the light bars set up in squares can spell out letters that look like old calculator read-outs. There are five interfaces installed around the station and anyone can use them.

They’re not on, because there is no filter, and yesterday the Toronto Transit Commission received a report explaining what went down, and making suggestions on what to do about it.

The first eye-opener is that the thing cost about $2 million, not the $500,000 first reported. It looks like it is worth about $20,000, or to be kind, maybe $100,000 factoring in the kiosks and labor.

The report says:

The art installation at Pioneer Village Station, entitled “LightSpell” was developed by Berlin-based artists, realities: united gmbh, led by Jan Edler and Tim Elder.

The artwork is an interactive installation consisting of a suspended array of 40 light elements which allows TTC customers to type out eight-character messages on touch-screen computer terminals, which messages are broadcast above the station platform. The touch-screen keyboards include all of the letters of the alphabet, special characters and numerals 0 to 9. The typed messages become visible through the light display and remain visible until a new message is typed.

The software which runs the system was developed by the artists and does not currently contain any filters, pre-approved words, or prohibited words.

From the original development of the art concept up until the opening of Pioneer Village Station, TTC staff, and members of the public, raised concerns with the artists relating to the potential misuse of the artwork (messaging system). TTC concerns are largely focused on customers using the system to type and display inappropriate content, including potential hate messaging or messaging that targets a specific person or group of people. TTC strives to ensure that its transit system is a safe and welcoming environment and concerns remain that without any mitigation features that potentially restrict content on what a customer can publicly type and display that this goal is undermined.

Editor – So … at least lightbulbs went off ahead of time that maybe this idea was, ummm, flawed.

Over the last several years, TYSSE staff have repeatedly raised concerns with the artists and believed that some mitigation feature (e.g. filter) was going to be included in the software. It was not until just prior to commissioning of the artwork that the TTC learned that the software did not include any mitigation features to limit the potential misuse of the system.

Editor – So over several years The Toronto-York Spadina Subway Extension (TYSSE) people wrung their hands about it, but didn’t get any concrete action??? Maybe say, “No, no guys … no moderation tool, no payment.”

Good lord.

Prior to the public opening of Pioneer Village Station, TTC staff decided not to activate the art installation as previous concerns with respect to the possible misuse of the messaging feature had not been addressed.

The recommendations to the TTC board are:

1. Approve not activating the art installation at Pioneer Village Station until:

a. mitigation features can be added to limit the potential for misuse,

and b. further consultation with the artists.

2. Approve the recommendations as set out in the Confidential Attachment 1.

3. Authorize that the information and recommendations provided in the Confidential Attachment 1 to remain confidential in its entirety as it contains advice which is subject to client-solicitor privilege.

Which means Toronto taxpayers will likely see the costs for this thing escalate as the $300/hour lawyers go through months of filings and meetings. It shouldn’t have happened, but with all that in the rear-view mirror, it would likely be waaaaay less costly to whack together a simple software UX and moderation tool using web services, and at least put the thing in action.


  1. “Gloriously Stupid” is now my new favorite saying. Thanks.

  2. MarcoN says:

    This is why I have no sympathy for the City of Toronto and the TTC when they cry the blues that they have no money. My property taxes went up 25% YoY. Good to know this is where my money went.

  3. Jim Nista says:

    If only there was a company who had real-time moderation tools.

Leave a comment