DataSpaces: InFORMing the Urban Landscape

Via DataInvest
Via DataInvest 

I was invited by Michael Cohen, director of The New School’s Graduate Program in International Affairs, and faculty member Margarita Gutman to join their “Urban Century” class this past Monday to talk about media-centric approaches to the city. Their themes for the evening were “culture and representation,” and my lecture was part of the “formality/informality” module of the course — so I had to find a way to integrate these various themes. I found an appropriate ground, I think, in “dataspaces,” which I interpreted in two ways: (1) dedicated spaces within the city where we create, store, route, and access data; and (2) the city itself a substrate for generating data about itself — data that then, often, feeds back into the reshaping of the city.

I’m posting my slides and notes — which I hope make sense, but might not — below:

DataSpaces: Informing the Urban Landscape

  • Inform = to animate, influence, shape
  • Inform, as in information – role of data, information, information given physical form in the shape of various media, information given intellectual form in the shape of knowledge, in shaping culture
    • How can we see these informational resources represented in our cultural and urban landscapes?
  • Inform, root of informal – Consider informal forms of data and data collection; informal ways in which that data or knowledge is represented in the landscape, etc.

We’ll consider two seemingly disparate, but related, topics:

  • First, we’ll examine a cultural institution that houses our data, gives it intellectual and architectural form, makes it manifest in the urban landscape
    • Takes existing knowledge, catalogues it, stores it, makes it accessible
  • Second, we’ll consider the city itself as a substrate for generating “knowledge” – specifically, knowledge about itself and its inhabitants, and informing its future information – by harvesting data, formally and informally, overtly and covertly, actively and passively
    • In the process, we’ll consider, I hope, what it means to translate urban culture into data – and, if we have a city constructed efficiently and algorithmically from data, what space it leaves for cultural practices and human representation

[SLIDE 2] Before we begin: What is/are data?

Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in the information?

— T.S. Eliot, “The Rock,” 1934

[SLIDE 3] Data / Information / Knowledge / Wisdom Hierarchy

  • Credited to Russell Ackoff in his address accepting presidency of International Society for General Systems Research in 1989
  • David Weinberger takes issue with the model, which implies that one must “filter through” the lower levels in order to “take form as” higher levels of knowing
  • Regardless, in my talk, I’m going to use “data” as a shorthand for this entire intellectual rubric – but I want you to consider which epistemological “scale” we find embodied in our cultural institutions and cities at large


There are many ways in which data is given architectural form in the landscape:

  • [CLICK] Bundled, Buried video – Internet infrastructure
    • [SLIDE 5] 60 Hudson
  • [SLIDE 6] Digital Beijing: control and data center for 2008 Olympics; then will become museum for digital products manufacturers
  • [SLIDE 7] IAC Bldg
  • [SLIDES 8-15] Melding “old” and “new” media: Paju Book City
  • [SLIDE 16] Similar analog-digital “bridging” challenge: NYPL
    • [SLIDE 17] Proposed Norman Foster renovations – entirely “formal” process, minimal public process
  • [SLIDE 18] My research on other cities’ libraries and their design processes

[SLIDE 19] Why spend millions of dollars on a downtown library building in the age of Google and Apple Stores? [CLICK] Does anybody believe libraries are a waste of taxpayer money? A misuse of good real-estate?

[CLICK] What formal and informal functions – particularly cultural functions – does the library continue to serve?

  • Important information services – particularly for those on the wrong side of the digital divide
  • Also provides info services for the “haves”: advocate for open access, preservation (of analog and digital, negotiating DRM
  • Incorporating public spaces
  • Incorporating spaces for making media – hackerspaces, fablabs
  • Circulation center for library systems

[SLIDE 20] I’m going to read a little piece I published on the University of Minnesota Press’s blog:

With each new Google product release, new mobile technology development, new e-reader launch brings new opportunities for the library to “innovate” in response. And while “keeping current” is a crucial goal, it’s important to place that “pursuit of currency” in a larger cultural, political-economic, and institutional context. Striving to stay technologically relevant can, in fact, backfire when it means merely responding to commercial media’s profit-driven innovations; we see these mistakes – technological innovation for technological innovation’s sake – in the education arena quite often.

It’s important that libraries keep sight of their long-term goals and time-honored values, which should remain steadfast regardless what Google decides to do tomorrow, and that they keep in close contact with their publics. In my book, I focused a great deal on how libraries involve and respond to their publics, and how they balance seemingly competing obligations: to “old” and “new” (and ever-“newer”) media, to public service and commerce, to staff and patrons. Other critics and scholars have paid attention to how libraries have long negotiated the tricky terrain between copyright (and, increasingly digital media rights management) and freedom of access, between preservation and innovation, etc.

Those challenges won’t go away.

They may manifest themselves in different forms week by week, but the basic provocations should be familiar. Libraries will be better positioned to face those challenges if they do so with their publics at their side – and that partnership requires the cultivation of a robust system of exchange and collaboration between libraries and the communities from which they emerge, and which they serve.

[SLIDE 21] Over a decade ago I wrote my dissertation on the design of Rem Koolhaas’s Seattle Public Library building, and I asked you to read an article that emerged from that research: “Just How Public Is the Seattle Public Library? Publicity, Posturing and Politics in Public Design” Journal of Architectural Education 57:1 (Fall 2003): 5-18

[SLIDE 22] How can libraries engage with their publics – through formal, institutional means?

  • Of course this question applies not only to libraries, but to myriad other cultural, and perhaps governmental / non-profit / etc. institutions – the kinds of institutions that many of you are probably working with, or aspire to work with. [CLICK] But how are libraries unique in their relationships to a city’s publics
  • [SLIDE 23] Important to note that the root of the term “data” is “given” – something that is given, shaped. The ways questions are asked thus inform potential responses.
    • [CLICK] How to manage the “data” one collects via public process?
    • Metaphors, rhetoric, use of design / [SLIDE24] presentation media in various formats (including models), experts’/authorities’ personas à all feed into management of media campaigns
    • Through collecting “data” from the public, you’re also building that public.

[SLIDE 25] Reference Perec’s “Species of Space” à I asked you to read “Marginalia: Little Libraries in the Urban Margins” Places (May 22, 2012).

  • [CLICK] How are DIY libraries different “species” of DataSpaces?
    • Consider the whole landscape of “pop-ups,” interventions, which, in some parts of the world isn’t as “Brooklyn” as it is a necessary [SLIDE 26] “informal urbanism”

[SLIDE 27] How might “informal” grassroots libraries generate “data” regarding how our institutional libraries can function more responsively, effectively, and efficiently?

  • Consider the values implied in these three adjectives. Which values are data usually marshaled in service of?
  • Obviously these questions are applicable to other kinds of “testbed” / prototype development projects.


[SLIDE 28] And this leads into our second section, where I’d like to explore – with you – how the city has come to be conceived as a generator of data, and as an object or site most efficiently designed via the processing of data. Your feedback will be particularly helpful here because I’m working on an article right now on data-fetishism in both formal and informal urban research. It’s part of a new column I’ll be writing for Places journal, and it’s due on Friday (she says sheepishly). You were asked to read some blogs posts in which I plant “seeds” of the ideas I’d like to address in this article (“Measurement Aesthetics” Words In Space [blog pos]
(April 24, 2013); “Solutionism by Another Name — or, When You’ve Got Algorithms Aplenty, the Whole World Looks Like Data” Words in Space [blog pos]
(April 11, 2013)).

[SLIDE 29] Lewis Mumford, in The City in History, writes:

Through its concentration of physical and cultural power, the city heightened the tempo of human intercourse and translated its products into forms that could be stored and reproduced. Through its monuments, written records, and orderly habits of association, the city enlarged the scope of all human activities, extending them backwards and forwards in time. By means of its storage facilities (buildings, vaults, archives, monuments, tablets, books), the city became capable of transmitting a complex culture from generation to generation, for it marshalled together not only the physical means but the / human agents needed to pass on and enlarge this heritage. That remains the greatest of the city’s gifts. As compared with the complex human order of the city, our present ingenious electronic mechanisms for storing and transmitting information are crude and limited.

Media theorist Friedrich Kittler points out that cities have historically been not only sites of storage and transmission, but also of data-processing and formatting.

[SLIDE 30: BLANK] Dan Hill, CEO of design studio Fabrica, formerly of Sitra, the Finnish Innovation Fund, and, before, that, Urban Informatics leader at Arup, the global engineering firm – and creator of the fabulous City of Sound blog, looks at the city’s data future:

[CLICK] Fast forward, and some have written of the this century’s cities developing new artificial nervous systems, to supersede those articulated metabolic systems of the 19th century. These newer nervous systems, not centralised but distributed, and predicated on digital networks of networks in which every object is informational and every movement or behaviour is trackable, could combine to form a new kind of lattice-like informational membrane, hovering magically over the physical fabric of the city. As if one of Calvino’s imaginary cities comprised solely of information, a limitless multidimensional data-based shadow structure represents the life of the city in real-time. (Dan Hill, “The Adaptive City”)

Hill continues:

[SLIDE 31] Facilitated by networks of sensors, the data emerging from the new nervous system appears limitless: near-imperceptible variations in air quality and water quality, innumerable patterns in public and private traffic, results of restaurant inspections, voting patterns in public referenda, triggers of motion sensors, the output of heating ventilation and air conditioning systems, patterns of water usage, levels of waste recycled, genres of books returned at local libraries, location of bicycles in the city’s bike-sharing network, fluctuations in retail stock controls systems, engine data from cars and aeroplanes, collective listening habits of music fans, presence of mobile phones in vehicles enabling floating car data, digital photos and videos locked to spatial co-ordinates, live feeds from CCTV cameras, quantities of solar power generated and used by networks of lamp-posts, structural engineering data from the building information models of newly constructed architecture, complex groupings of friends perceptible in social software multiplied by location-based services, and so on. Myriad flows of data move in and around the built fabric. As many or most objects in the city become potential nodes in a wider network, enabled through the natural interoperability of systems influenced by the Internet and its open-source philosophies and standards-based protocols, this shimmering informational field provides a view of the entire city…

[SLIDE 32] We see much of this vision manifested in IBM’s and Cisco’s “smart city” developments.

[SLIDE 33] [Yet, Hill continues,] “Urban information design emerges in a call-and-response relationship with informatics, filtering and describing these patterns for the benefit of citizens and machines. The invisible becomes visible, as the impact of people on their urban environment can be understood in real-time. Citizens turn off taps earlier, watching their water use patterns improve immediately. …Road systems can funnel traffic via speed limits and traffic signals in order to route around congestion. …Citizens can not only explore proposed designs for their environment, but now have a shared platform for proposing their own. They can plug in their own data sources, effectively hacking the model by augmenting or processing the feeds they’re concerned with.”

Thus, even in our over-designed smart cities we have the potential to “hack” the official urban network with informally-derived data.

Still, it seems to me, even if we “citizens” are generating the data – [SLIDE 34] via citizen science projects, infrastructural tourism fieldwork, [SLIDE 35] hackathons, etc. – we’re still facing our urban problems with algorithmic tools. Are we falling prey to an “instrumental realism”? A naïve empiricism? Or what Evgeny Morozov calls [SLIDE 36] “solutionism”: a “[r]ecasting [of] all complex social situations either as neatly defined problems with definite, computable solutions or as transparent and self-evident processes that can be easily optimized – if only the right algorithms are in place!” What happens to all the messy “cultural” stuff in a city modeled for algorithmically-tuned efficiency?

What does our fetishization of data, either “official or informal” – our methodolatry – say about how we conceive of our cities?

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