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A fun, lively path to smarter cities

San Francisco-area designer Steve Pepple wondered whether data could help him explore neighborhoods — on the way to helping city planners build better, perhaps “smarter” cities.

He describes in a fun post on Medium, a genuine “data story,” how he set out to help people find “pockets of activity, vibrance, and new things.”

First, he joined a do-it-yourself project called Sense Your City. Sensors around the world reaped “hyper-local data about environmental conditions, such as noise, dust, light, and pollutants.” That data led to “pockets of activity, vibrance, and new things.” In San Francisco, he writes, “you could see when the fog rolls in.”

That sounds like fun, but could he find a key insights about mobility, housing, or neighborhood change? He had frustrating moments. “I had a bunch of data to work with,” he writes. His many sources included DataSF, San Francisco Planning, SPUR, and the City of Oakland. But he didn’t know what he was doing. Perhaps worse, “I was stymied by trying to find a significant, cumulative insight by cobbling together and analyzing all the data.”

He had been inspired by one man’s discovery who famously found such an insight in San Francisco rental data. Eric Fischer had pored over newspaper ads back to 1948 and surprised urbanists with his conclusion: the usual levers for regulating demand wouldn’t solve the city’s housing crisis.

Smaller experiments

With no big discoveries in sight, Pepple turned to shorter experiments. Apparently as part of a fellowship with Stamen Design and Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, he looked at Instagram photos to track street movement, such as some taken during the 2015 Pride Parade. Data from those photos showed events like parade formation and, in the afternoon, a drift into block parties.

His Medium post includes a short series of visualizations that are more fun and vibrant than you might think any “smart city” has a right to be. With “color quantization,” he created a “spatial database of color” that showed parks and murals in the Mission District. In another map, colors expressed “density of people and establishments,” with brighter and more colorful buildings showing the most active.

Tangible, street-level meaning came in large, street-level screens…that showed passersby how they could “interact with data about their neighborhood and arrive at their own discoveries.”

Clues

It was his work with the urban designers and architects Perkins + Will that his approach had what I find the most interesting and possibly the most meaningful clue. Pepple and team could see and hear neighborhoods with the most activity. Could that be found with data? Indeed, data tracked activity and what people said about the places where it occurred; social media helped characterize those places; mapping tools connected hotspots.

A look at the maps Pepple and team produced shows that transit, living space, restaurants, and other amenities fail to anchor social hotspots. Fine, but why? If the data can reveal this, perhaps it can go the rest of the way.

Keep your eye on Pepple. His playful and often fun analysis puts a bright, even inspiring face on urban data.

Thanks to Stephanie Langenfeld McReynolds, vice president of marketing at Alation, for alerting me to Pepple’s work.

A horse race in town: Chief Data Officer vs Chief Reliance Officer

Smart City, the movement, has a horse race underway. At stake: Who will sit closer to the mayor or city manager?

Chief Data Officer, the darling of the data crowd, was out of the gate first. Four lengths behind and gaining, though, is a dark horse. It’s Chief Resilience Officer, favorite of the humanists. He’s breathing hard and coming up fast. Whoever wins will subsume the other.

If Chief Data Officer wins, the city’s chief executive will feel the sway of CDO’s data-driven whispers. All other things being equal, decisions will rely on data analysis.

But if Chief Resilience Officer pulls off a surprise win, the chief executive will hear her slightly more humanist whispers. Data will be a factor, but so will empathy. Here’s how the group 100 Resilient Cities begins to explain resilience:

[Resilience is] the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses, and systems within a city to survive, adapt, and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience.

I don’t see how that’s done without a big dose of data analysis. What modern process goes without it? The difference is scope: tending toward cold and narrow or toward broad and warm?

Each horse has a cheering section in the stands. Naturally, the data people — data analysts, data stewards, “data scientists,” data people of all kinds — root for the chief data officer. “Run, CDO, run!” To many of them, data is not merely a reflection of the world, it is the world itself.

Nearby them is a small crowd cheering for the chief resilience officer. “Run, CRO, run!” Data’s good, they agree, but there’s more to running a city or living in it.

Within business, the CDO, the data guy, would be the obvious winner. Data is tangible. It’s new and shiny, and it’s got that science-and-research allure of cold certainty.

But this is a city. Warmth and comfort matters, not just “truth” and cold facts. People — the voting populace — have lives to live there in that city.

Which crowd do I stand with? I’m always for the dark horse.

improved urban decision making

…the smart city movement is less about technology and more about improving the way decisions are made in large urban areas, where the demand for services is increasing and the availability of resources is diminishing.”

Michael Flowers, as interpreted by Mike Barlow in a 2015 O’Reilly report, Smart Cities, Smarter Citizens. Flowers is now chief analytics officer at Enigma.io.

A mossy viz to try at home

Visualization purists beware. This “viz” is mossy — as in moss.

At first glance, it’s a visualization. It represents parks, forests, rivers, and lakes in Berlin, Germany. But then it invites you to touch it, and the map nudges you closer to the real thing.

The mossy-viz idea seems to have begun when Sebastian Meier sought a more sensual experience than he could give with an ordinary map. Meier, who works at at the Interaction Design Lab, part of the University of Applied Sciences in Potsdam, Germany, begins his explanation this way.

Most visualizations use the two-dimensional plane of paper or screens, even when visualizing spatial (three-dimensional) data. Green Berlin explores the opportunity space of tangible artefacts, created with rapid prototyping techniques, in this case a laser cutter. Since humans are multi-sensory beings, the physical, the haptic world gives us a certain sensation we cannot deny.

To make a mossy map, you need data (Meier got his from OpenStreetMap), a laser cutter, Photoshop, and a few other things.

Read more here. Instructions here.

Extra credit question: What’s the term for a map that’s more than visual? Should we call it a “viz,” the term that Tableau marketing people popularized years ago?

A mossy viz to try at home

Visualization purists will reject this. It’s mossy — as in moss.

At first glance, it’s a visualization. It represents parks, forests, rivers, and lakes in Berlin, Germany. On further examination, you want to touch it.

The mossy-viz idea seems to have begun when Sebastian Meier sought a more sensual experience than he could give with an ordinary map. Meier, who works at at the Interaction Design Lab, part of the University of Applied Sciences in Potsdam, Germany, begins his explanation this way.

Most visualizations use the two-dimensional plane of paper or screens, even when visualizing spatial (three-dimensional) data. Green Berlin explores the opportunity space of tangible artefacts, created with rapid prototyping techniques, in this case a laser cutter. Since humans are multi-sensory beings, the physical, the haptic world gives us a certain sensation we cannot deny.

To make a mossy map, you need data (Meier got his from OpenStreetMap), a laser cutter, Photoshop, and a few other things. (Instructions here.)

Read the rest here.