An Urban Data Infrastructure

August 27, 2014

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One definition of “the web” could be that it is a highly versatile infrastructure for creating, managing and delivering information resources. It is actively sustained, managed, and expanded, by us (its users), not mentioning its reliance on a very handy system of participating computers and electrical grids (call it the “internet”). The computer languages that are at its heart are continually changed and improved by the requirements and tasks we give it, and entire economies have been built from the set of applications, services and software products that it has made possible.

The web does not just grow quantitatively (that is, in how many websites are active, or how many are linked to one another, or much information is shared), it also grows qualitatively (that is, in the kinds of services it is capable of delivering). While many of us (who are active users – yes, there are places in the world that do not use the web or the internet!) are, perhaps, comfortable with the idea that the web has been around for decades and that its capabilities are basically the same as they always have been, the web as we know and use it today, is actually relatively new. Rather, it’s a complex and sophisticated information content management and sharing platform, and is accessed (and is thus enabled) by many users, several different kinds of devices, using several different types of web browsers (the applications that access and deliver web page content) and other more specialized programs.

These capabilities include the production, collection, analysis, sale, and visualization, of geographic data, on a big scale. Anyone who uses Google Maps (or any online route planning tool)  to calculate a shortest route by distance and by mode of transport is accessing  Geographic Information System (GIS)-based algorithms and a massive database resource that resides on and throughout the web; Google provides an access interface and manages the structure and flow of the information. Smartphones are increasingly (if not inherently) dependent on web-resources. They are able to exploit locationally-meaningful information and functionality that, for much of the past few decades, was reserved only for those with powerful desktop – based GIS software, and the web was certainly not capable of digesting it or implementing it. To illustrate this point, consider that mobile tweets from Twitter are geotagged using the device’s GPS, enabling the design of maps like this.

The proliferation of web-dependent devices and applications  is sort of akin to the construction (over the last 10 years) of some kind of massive, decentralized sensor network that is global in scale and that has added the “where” component to a growing body of content on the web. It establishes the web as a valuable source of geographic information that we can leverage.

Widespread exploitation of location-data can have a profound effect on how we approach complex problems and access the tools that can help solve them, especially urban planning and design problems. “What is the optimal route of a new Toronto LRT line that will maximize access to employment centers, to affordable housing, but has the most potential to bring in new users?” “On which neighbourhoods of Toronto is the real estate market most dependent, as a main sector of the economy?”, “Who lives and works where, and what are these people like? How do they contribute to their local economies, and where are their social networks?”. Answers to complex questions like these are more easily had the more web-resources are developed. We already use web resources to answer simple questions about shortest routes, walking distance, where various things are located, but can we now use it to get to work on understanding and designing complex places, like cities?

 

At  this point, we have to ask some other big questions about how we, as designers and planners, work with data: what is the role of web resources in planning and design work? How do they help us understand complex places, let alone complex projects? I think that part of the answer is in how we structure our approach to the web: is it just a place where we view information that someone else has curated (like interactive, but still relatively static, web maps?), or can we use it as a tool to test our intuitive ideas of how places work? There are a lot of apps to choose from (and there are a lot of apps we could design).

Another part of the answer is in how we structure our approach to the role of geographic information in decision-making: some questions, like “will particular sorts of ground-floor retail revitalize a city district in a way that is meaningful to local residents?” are not easily answered, not even by geo-tagged survey responses delivered through smartphone devices, and likely involve much more intuitive thinking about what constitutes relevant information than a simple reliance on web resources might suggest. Finding the best way to apply relevant information to solving an urban design or urban planning problem is not a new kind of task, but it is exciting one.

Even more exciting (to me) is the continual evolution of tools and resources that are available to us as professionals and that have an impact on how we work and even, how we can contribute. The web is an incredibly powerful piece of infrastructure. In subsequent posts I will aim to discuss particular developments in the field of geo-information, the amplification of its value as a web resource, and how we are, how we can, and how we should or should not, make use of it in solving problems raised by contemporary urban places.