About the Course

This site is the result of student work produced during the Fall 2014 semester within the Barnard + Columbia Colleges Architecture department. The special topics seminar, Datascapes & the Informal City, asked a series of questions currently on the minds of researchers and practitioners in the fields of architecture and urbanism, while recognizing that the course would likely generate more questions than it answers. Among those initial questions were

What is and could be the role of spatial data visualization in architectural design and urban decision making, generally?
The course examined the applications of data visualization and mapping in architectural research and design practices, and students surveyed and critiqued existing examples of both static image maps and online interactive maps.

To what extent can data visualization be used to understand or gain insight into the subjective experiences and informal processes of urban life?
The specific challenge of the projects presented here tasked the students with considering urban phenomena that ultimately cannot be quantified or summarily described through the analysis of numeric data. As such, these informal practices are often left unrepresented in decision making models and methods reliant upon emerging techniques of data visualization despite their importance in the functioning of the city. In response, the students developed visualization projects aimed at describing, investigating, and/or revealing these practices through thoughtful design, creative analysis, and careful consideration of the interactions between collected datasets and between the visualization and its audience.

How do representational conventions influence the communicative and analytical efficacy of mapped data? Specifically, what are the conventions of web-based mapping and how might they be challenged so as to use interactive maps as tools for research and discourse?
Building on the previous inquiries, students collectively tackled this question through their design explorations. Some introduced temporality into the interactive experience, while others exploited the ability to “zoom in” on the map to consider the resolution of a dataset against the scale of the drawing or to put forth thematic comparisons between layers of information.

The students worked on separate, but adjacent and sometimes overlapping, sites along Manhattan’s Canal Street. This distinct-but-connected corridor approach allowed for a seminar-wide conversation, the ability to share data resources while comparing the many different ways singular datasets can be analyzed and visualized, while affording the opportunity for the projects to diverge as necessary.

This divergence between the projects ultimately underscores a working premise of the course and a repeated point in the seminar discussion: that data-driven design is not synonymous with mathematical conclusion or derivation—that design is a human decision-making process, whether the design of research methodologies, of visualization tools, or of the built and policy interventions that result. From the syllabus:

To design without data is to ignore what could be known, but to design with data is neither simple nor agnostic. Understanding and contextualizing the datasets that proliferate [in cities] is not a straightforward matter of number-crunching, but rather a design process in its own right. A “raw,” “unbiased,” or “pure” dataset does not exist, and the analysis of any dataset requires assumption and ultimately asks the analyst for his or her personal judgment. Further, designing based on the results of data-driven analysis does not relieve the designer of his or her opinions, beliefs, politics, or theses. More than ever, our decisions may be grounded in information, but they are our decisions nonetheless.

The work collected and presented on this site, I think, speaks volumes to the seriousness with which today’s students are engaging the implications (ethical and otherwise) of “smart cities,” ubiquitous sensing, and urban informatics more generally. Theirs is not the generation pioneering the urban “turn toward data,” but the one that will be determining its value.

Leah Meisterlin
Term Assistant Professor
Barnard + Columbia | Architecture

Addendum: A version of this course was also taught in the previous fall. The larger questions were the same, although the students were asked to explore the representational possibilities available through 3D printing and rapid prototyping (rather than interactive, web-based maps). The projects which resulted can be found here.