Columbia's Spatial Information Design Lab helps map the future

Via eye-popping design, a lab at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation uncovers compelling stories and community problems to be solved, all buried in data.

"Big Data" and "social media" are today's biggest buzzwords. But beyond their trendiness as topics, Big Data and social media also allow everyday people to share their voices and stories, to participate in ways to possibly improve their lives. Someone, however, needs to make sense of all of the information floating around--by organizing neatly and efficiently to help communities analyze patterns, discover problems, and act to find solutions.

This is one of the roles of the Spatial Information Design Lab (SIDL) at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP), which translates data into beautiful and compelling maps to communicate statistical information.

Take, for instance, the map pictured above. It's gorgeous, yes, and it tells a surprising story about New York City. The map pictures the locations of users of Foursquare, the social media service, in New York's five boroughs. The image reflects one week's worth of Foursquare "check-ins" in July, 2011. Each circle represents a different kind of pastime or task. Green represents outdoor activity; mauve, arts-related events; hot pink, nightlife; red, employment; yellow, restaurants; light blue, retail; and dark blue, travel-hub comings and goings.

Sarah Williams, the co-director of SIDL, expected that Foursquare use would reflect heavier use in richer boroughs and neighborhoods. So she told Columbia Magazine, the university's alumni publication, in a just-published profile of SIDL. But clearly the map shows that usage is pretty even. When researchers at SIDL looked at Foursquare check-ins in proportion to population density in various neighborhoods, activity in poorer, outer-borough areas was as steady as that in wealthier areas such as Manhattan's Midtown or Chelsea sections.

"New York is a social-media city," Laura Kurgan, director of both SIDL and Visual Studies at GSAPP, as well as an associate professor of architecture there, told Columbia Magazine. "We found patterns in the data you couldn't see before--stories that didn't exist."

The findings on social-media use could affect the design of future services for New Yorkers, including how city agencies might reach people who need health or other information, possibly via social media. Kurgan, Williams, and their SIDL colleagues have also mapped Foursquare check-ins in cities such as Moscow, Rio, Tokyo, and Mexico City.

This isn't the only project that could help communities picture the future of city or state services. Starting in the mid-2000s, SIDL mapped stats from state corrections departments across the United States according to inmates' home neighborhoods in inner city settings known for housing criminals. The SIDL researchers and designers then overlaid the images with the amount of public funds used to jail the inmates. What the designs showed was that some individual blocks in tough urban neighborhoods could cost more than $1 million a year in public money to send that one block's convicted residents to jail.

The elegant graphics and thought-provoking findings reveal, via design, a narrative buried in the data: that some states are investing more in prisons than in life-improvement programs for certain urban neighborhoods. Cultural institutions have taken notice; the Museum of Modern Art in New York has acquired several of these maps, which are in its permanent collection.

Recently, organizations outside are tapping SIDL to understand more about their methods of cartography and analysis--and apply it. The office of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg hosted SIDL to illustrate how to better analyze park and public-space usage. And in July, media and information provider Thomson Reuters announced its sponsorship of the Advanced Data Visualization Project, an initiative housed at SIDL. The collaboration between SIDL and Thomson Reuters will look at how data from not only mobile phones, but also future means of information-gathering harvested from embedded sensors in clothing, buildings, roads, and other smart objects, can be mapped.

The idea is to use the advanced cartography methods practiced by SIDL within areas such as journalism, science, medicine, law, urban planning, and other disciplines, by consulting with Columbia professors in a variety of fields, as well as Thomson Reuters reporters and editors and outside partners. Thomson Reuters has committed to leading one of six planned visualization projects for the initiative.

Given the powerful new alliance with Thomson Reuters, SIDL's narrative approach to designing how data can be interpreted is likely to redefine map-making in new ways, helping to propel it from providing snapshots of present geographies to mapping the future, too.

[Via Columbia Magazine and Thomson Reuters press release]

Images: Spatial Information Design Lab, GSAPP Columbia University.

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