With mobile tech, mapping a city's emotions, memories

At TEDxPhilly, spatial analyst Amy Hillier explains how tech can help us map the experience of a city.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

PHILADELPHIA -- What can technologies do for us to help us understand what's going on in the city?

University of Pennsylvania urban planning professor Amy Hillier took to the stage here at the second annual TEDxPhilly conference on Tuesday to demonstrate how technology could one day help us look beyond statistics to visualize the very experience of a city.

"Could we map emotion? Memory? Joy? Emotion? Love? Grief?" she asked. "We know you can map murders in Philadelphia, but can you map the grief that comes from it?"

Today's geographic information system, or GIS, technology allows us to map the visible city -- streets, sidewalks, buildings -- that we see when we walk around. With a pinch and a zoom, you can see almost any corner of every major American city.

"Once upon a time, this was magnificent," Hillier said. "Now, it's what you come to expect."

But what does the city look like beneath the surface? In its sewer systems, through its inlets, gas covers, water pipes, electricity and telephone lines? We can begin to use GIS tech to add map layers for these kinds of infrastructure, too.

"The city I'm interested in is the city we don't see," Hillier said. "And there's so much we don't see."

But the third step, arguably the most important, is the one that no one can see but everyone can feel: the societal impact of those other layers. Such as the real estate practice of "redlining" housing lending risk for certain neighborhoods, which had profound and lasting cultural and economic effects on a group of people.

It is this layer that is the most compelling, Hillier said -- the one that manages to show how your neighborhood affects your life.

"Neighborhoods shape us, and we also shape our neighborhoods," she said.

For example, two children living in two different neighborhoods could have wildly different experiences and, more importantly, opportunities. You can begin to quantify this by mapping where you eat, where you go for entertainment, and then add a layer of average household income on top.

How does race or income affect your opportunities? Is there a way to fill the gap between hypothesis and conclusion with spatial data?

With today's mobile technology, we can certainly begin to attempt it. By mapping family, food, fun, purchases, modes of transportation and other factors, we can begin to understand how a child experiences his or her city.

"We can actually map where kids are going, how they interact with their neighborhoods," she said.

The hope? That with those insights, we can use the same technology to begin to change that environment for good. For example, we can use augmented reality so that children could actually see, on their smartphone's display, red lines around neighborhoods affected by economic disinvestment.

Or, see the true message of the graffiti on a brick wall. Not the expletive it actually says, but the message behind it:

"We deserve better."

Photo: Kevin Monko

More from TEDxPhilly 2011:

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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