Urban data: From fetish object to social object

An event hosted by LSE Cities

This one-day gathering assembled a group of experts from Istanbul, Los Angeles, New York, Oslo and Sheffield to discuss questions surrounding the Age of Big Data.

Anyone paying even casual attention to contemporary media, whether popular or scholarly, is now exposed to a steady cascade of voices assuring us that we live in something called the Age of Big Data. Our speakers will present cases in which local communities from all over the world have used participatory data-gathering and mapping practices to open up questions of distributional justice, make claims against power, and gain a sense of themselves as having agency and competence with networked tools.

These images furnish the practice of data analysis and decision support with a visual rhetoric, and they circulate widely. They are reproduced endlessly on blog posts, posted to Facebook and Pinterest and Tumblr, tweeted and retweeted and retweeted again. They circulate, and they seduce. They are admired as much for their beguilingly aesthetic qualities as for any analytical or practical utility they may have. The result is that while data visualisations surely do a kind of work in the world, it may not be the kind of work we’re led to believe they’re capable of doing.

We discussed questions like:

– Who makes the data represented in interactive visualisations and maps, and how?
– Who are the parties responsible for gathering the data, and what criteria do they use for the selection and representation of information they feel to be salient
– What pressures may be operating on either selection or representation?
– What domains of urban life seem to lend themselves most readily to intervention via participatory mapping or data visualisation?
– How can those who generated the data in the first place gain access to it later, either in raw form or as analytic product?
– What implications follow from the choice of a given technical platform or presentation strategy?
– What does it feel like to work with data, in any of these phases or aspects?
– What can communities do with data visualisation, as practice or artifact?

The intention of this one-day gathering was to convene some of those whose work is currently doing the most to push back against this set of circumstances. Together, perhaps we can begin to push data visualisations from being fetishised tokens of a notional futurity — and, at best, flat and settled representations of the way things are in the city — to active propositions about the way things might be.


    Yaşar Adnan Adanalı

    Yaşar Adanalı is a sociologist and political scientist with an MSc in Development and Planning (Social Development Practice) by the University College London. He is Development specialist at the University of Stuttgart working for camp improvement projects of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Yaşar is a lecturer of the Masters in Integrated Urbanism and Sustainable Design at the University of Stuttgart. In Mundus Urbano, Yasar teaches the course on Urban Participatory Planning.

    Rachel Binx

    Rachel Binx is a data visualizer, developer, designer, and mathematician. She has co-founded Meshu and Gifpop, two small companies that explore creating one-off physical objects from the data that each person finds meaningful. Previously, she worked as a design technologist for Stamen Design, where she built projects for clients such as MTV, Facebook, and Oprah. In general, she's a fan of anything that converts javascript to custom physical objects.

    Arlindo Pereira Jr

    Arlindo Pereira Jr. is a web developer, OpenStreetMap enthusiast and cycloactivist from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Together with the Transporte Ativo NGO and fifty fellow cyclists, he helped to create Ciclo Rotas Centro, a collaboratively-planned, 30+km network of cycleways and cyclepaths in downtown Rio de Janeiro. The project has been adopted by the mayor, and 3km have already been built.

    Nithya V. Raman

    Nithya V. Raman’s work has been focused on questions of human rights and urban planning, particularly the access of the urban poor to land and livelihoods. She has worked with various groups including Amnesty International, the Hazards Center, and the Unorganized Workers’ Federation. Nithya co-authored Clouds of Injustice, a report published by Amnesty International on the environmental and health impacts of the Bhopal gas leak of 1984, and was a SARAI Fellow. She is also trained as a classical dancer, and has performed solo and with groups in venues throughout India and abroad. Nithya graduated from Harvard University with a degree in political theory and has a Masters in urban planning from M.I.T.

    Paula Z. Segal

    Paula Z. Segal, Esq. is the founding director of 596 Acres, Inc., New York's community land access advocacy organization. She is the principal organizer of 596 Stories: The Forensics of Urban Renewal in New York City. She has been featured as an author in Shelterforce magazine, the New Village Press collection Beyond Zuccotti Park, and as a speaker at the Brooklyn Museum, Economic & Social Research Council 11th Annual Festival of Social Science (University of Sheffield, UK), and the Montreal EcoHack (keynote). Paula is a graduate of City University of New York Law School at Queens College, where she was a Haywood Burns Fellow in Human and Civil Rights and worked in the Economic Justice Project at Main Street Legal Services. Paula was member of the Empty Vessel Project, a collectively run art and action space housed in a rescued rescue boat on the Gowanus Canal.

    Mona Sloane

    Mona Sloane is Programme Manager and Researcher at Configuring Light. She holds an MSc in the Culture and Society programme from the LSE which she completed with distinction and was awarded the Hobhouse Memorial Prize for outstanding performance. She also is a PhD candidate at LSE Sociology where she holds an LSE scholarship and works and publishes on the sociology of design and urban planning. Her research interests include material culture studies, aesthetic economies, urban atmospheres and ethnography.

    Farida Vis

    Farida is a Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield on the theme of ‘Big Data and Social Change’ and is centrally concerned with researching social media, crisis communication, data journalism, citizen engagement and discourses around Big Data. Farida has a BA (Staffordshire University), PhD (Manchester Metropolitan University).

    Even Westvang

    Even is a Principal at Bengler specialising in concept development, user interface design and data visualisation. He teaches at the School of Design and Architecture (AHO) in Oslo – where he has insisted on doing a course called Internet Carpentry 101 on the material circumstances of the internet and how this informs how we may design for it.

    Adam Greenfield

    Previously a rock critic, bike messenger and psychological operations specialist in the US Army, Adam Greenfield spent over a decade working in the design and development of networked digital information technologies, as lead information architect for the Tokyo office of internet services consultancy Razorfish, independent user-experience designer and head of design direction for service and user-interface design at Nokia headquarters in Helsinki. Selected in 2013 as Senior Urban Fellow at the LSE Cities centre of the London School of Economics, Adam has also taught in New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program and the Urban Design course at the Bartlett, University College London. His books include Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing (2006), Urban Computing and its Discontents (2007), and the #1 bestselling Against the Smart City (2013). He lives in London with his partner, the filmmaker Nurri Kim.