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Petaluma artist creates crosswalk buttons for change

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Petaluma artist Tim Dye is hoping to change the world, one crosswalk button at a time.

Dye, who said he’s long been fascinated with exploring data, technology and art, became frustrated after learning that pedestrian buttons in some major cities, like New York, are sometimes defunct. While waiting to cross a downtown Petaluma street, Dye had the idea to use the safety devices, which typically make a beeping noise or tell pedestrians to “wait,” to instead deliver simple messages of positivity from voices around the nation.

The 53-year-old New Jersey native tracked down a crosswalk button on eBay and began tinkering with the internal components to program the device to replay messages that he records and uploads. He also affixed a sign that reads “Push Button to Change World.”

He’s spent several months asking people in airports, taxis and on the street to share a short message they find meaningful to be recorded and played through the device’s speaker each time the button is pushed.

“It’s whatever people want to say — it can be anything from ‘Vote Trump to change the world,’ someone said that,” said Dye, who is the senior vice president and chief business development officer at Petaluma-based Sonoma Technology, Inc. “Other people said things like ‘Remember that you can’t take anything with you when you die,’ or to just ‘Ride bikes more and drive less.’ It’s whatever speaks to an individual.”

Dye has placed his revamped crosswalk button on light posts in downtown Petaluma several times in the past weeks, and he’s spent time observing passersby interacting with his creation, often striking up a conversation to glean feedback.

Petaluma resident Will Powers, who encountered the device when it was temporarily affixed to a Water Street light post, said he was intrigued by the concept.

“It’s a big statement,” the 56-year-old said. “Simple but big.”

Powers, a self-professed thrill seeker who’s an avid mountain and dirt biker, contributed a message to the project: “Don’t be afraid to play hard.”

Dye has collected about 20 statements so far, which he’s lightly edited to eliminate any profanity or to dull background noise before uploading them, he said. He’s also established a phone number where messages can be recorded.

Though he’s only created one of the $400 devices so far, he aims to broaden the reach of the project by working with other organizations to permanently install the devices in other unexpected locations in the city’s infrastructure. Dye said he recognizes the important public safety role pedestrian buttons play for traffic control, but he hopes to potentially collaborate with city officials to see if the concept might also be utilized in working crosswalk buttons.

“I don’t want to diminish that (safety),” he said. “I just looked at it and thought how can we embed another message here and make it simple … what if it came on and said ‘OK to cross Petaluma Boulevard, have a great day’ or something like that.”

In addition to his innovative art, Dye is at the forefront of the development of air quality information and forecasting systems and has helmed programs at organizations including the Environmental Protection Agency and the World Meteorological Program. Blending his interest in creativity and science, he’s undertaken projects like a “weather window,” which has Internet connectivity and fetches weather predictions, lighting up each windowpane with colors that communicate the forecast.

“We live in a day and age where it’s complete information pollution,” he said. “You have TVs, cell phones and websites with news and you’re bombarded with information and it’s hard to parse all that to make sense of it. I want to have objects that provide unique and interesting information when you need it.”

The inventor has many ideas for repurposing crosswalk buttons in the future, including an apparatus that would reveal a secret about Petaluma with the push of a button, share locals’ opinions about the best restaurants in town, or even offer a compliment.

For now, he hopes his “Push Button to Change World” project will offer a thought-provoking commentary and inspire further creativity.

“I think the impact could be thinking about how do we walk through the urban environment and look at things like a light post and think about how that could be reconstructed to something. Or those newspaper boxes, how could you have that be a little library that people put books in … how we could take urban infrastructure and make it more interactive and different so as we walk around, we can shop but we can also explore,” he said.

While he plans to eventually expand the project beyond Petaluma, he said the community is a perfect launching point.

“I think it totally fits in,” he said. “There are people that are makers, people that go to Burning Man and there’s a real community feel. People care and there’s a lot of people out and walking around the town ... this is an ideal place.”

To learn more about the project, visit pushtochange.world.

(Contact Hannah Beausang at hannah.beausang@arguscourier.com)