Wednesday, November 27, 2013

SimCity wants to be the killer app of the classroom

We've had educational computer games almost since the dawn of the computer age itself. Math Blaster, Oregon Trail, the Incredible Machine. Many of these, particularly the older ones, were built to do one or a few things really well — teach multiplication, say, or physics, or to give a history lesson.
But the future of classroom games has a much more ambitious vision. SimCity, the venerable urban planning simulator, is positioning itself as a Swiss Army knife for teachers. Not only does it aim to convey basic skills such as arithmetic, but an understanding of complex systems such as the economy, the environment and the relationships that tie them together. It's a new supplement for schools that tries to be more comprehensive in scope and more conscious of the challenges our children will someday face.
Jessica Lindl oversees Glasslab — a five-member partnership of academic entities and gaming companies, including the Educational Testing Service and Electronic Arts, SimCity's publisher. For the past two weeks, Lindl has been encouraging schools to start using SimCityEDU, a specially tailored edition of the new SimCity for the classroom setting. It's not quite the same as the full SimCity experience; players don't have as much freedom to launch disasters or plop civic memorials. But that's because Lindl wants to make SimCityEDU a way to convey concepts that don't lend themselves well to boring old textbooks.
"We're really excited about the application of skills, rather than rote learning or memorization of content," Lindl said. "Twenty-first century success isn't based on what you know — it's based on what you learn, and how you acquire and apply those skills."
When I was growing up, SimCity 2000 was the state-of-the-art urban planning game. For the first time, you could set different tax rates for residential, commercial and industrial zones. You could build train tracks and hydroelectric dams. But one thing it didn't do very well was show you your residents' relationship to the place they lived. The whole city functioned (or in my case, malfunctioned) like a machine rather than a living organism. There's a reason for that: All of the SimCity games to date were little more than a static Excel spreadsheet whose values changed depending on your inputs. By playing the game you could begin to perceive how all the hidden formulas worked, but for a middle schooler, getting the full grasp was difficult.
What makes the newest entrant in the SimCity franchise so exciting is that it abandons the algorithms that previously managed all the systems behind the scenes for you. Instead, what happens to your city is a visible function of the Sims you see walking around — each of whom has her own individual needs and interests. Add them all up, and you get these flows of real people that create real traffic jams and real sewage problems. For children, that's a much more intuitive way of understanding how city systems are interconnected, and it's why educators are now turning to SimCity as a teaching tool.
What began as an alpha trial distributed to several hundred students earlier this year has now roped in "thousands" of pupils, though Lindl wouldn't give concrete adoption numbers. More interesting than how many students are using the technology, however, is who they are. One school in Oakland, Calif. is filled with non-native English speakers. While SimCityEDU is nominally geared toward teaching students about pollution, these young English-learners used the game to master their academic vocabulary. The game has also spread among teachers of other subjects, including history, social science, mathematics and the physical sciences. The ad-hoc uptake has convinced Lindl to start building future missions into the game that formally focus on those.
SimCityEDU strikes a balance between guiding players to their objectives and giving them the freedom to experiment. In a demo I played, I needed to plop enough bus stops around town to get at least 200 students into school. I wasn't allowed to build much else besides educational infrastructure — the menus that would ordinarily lead to construction options like parks and fire stations were empty, gone. But in addition to the bus stations, I discovered that opening up the school itself still granted the choice of adding another bus to the motor pool. More buses meant the bus stops would be serviced more frequently.
The 200 number was just an initial target to complete the mission. To the side of the screen was a little meter that filled up as I funneled more students into the school. When I hit my goal and "won," I had still only filled about half the meter. The completionist in me couldn't walk away from the mission until that bar was spilling over and dousing the whole town. The game was urging me to improve my game. For students, that subtle encouragement can be a valuable thing.
Teachers might object to classroom video games on the grounds that they rot kids' brains. But as gaming goes mainstream more generally, teachers are likelier these days to be gamers themselves, and can grasp the appeal of making school fun. And SimCityEDU isn't just for children. Its back-end dashboard is meant to give educators access to incredibly rich data on their students' performance. The software is capable of tracking not only what the kids click on, but also which in-game tools they hover their mouse over, the different data-analysis maps they open up, what they build, what they blow up, and on and on.
"If you think about teaching from a textbook," said Lindl, "you only have about 100 different data points [from a paper-based test] on how a student is learning. When you look at SimCity, there's over 3,000 data points we're gathering."
From this, educators can more finely identify their students' learning styles. In a scenario about cutting urban pollution, Lindl noticed some students jumping right in and tinkering with the different tools the game gave them. Others held back, reading all the information about each tool before planning their approach. That information could be used to better tailor a course to a student's needs.
Lindl also learned which pupils were becoming proficient in multidimensional thinking. Those who failed to understand pollution's mutual connection to both industry and the environment simply wound up bulldozing the offending power plants, which certainly solved the pollution problem but threw the economy into a tailspin as jobs were lost and workers moved out.
On top of the critical thinking and other academic skills we associate with schooling, SimCityEDU may hold unexplored benefits for emotional development.
"Students are just blown away by the engagement," Lindl said. "It's as engaging as stuff they do outside the classroom. They get really emotionally connected to the citizens and their city — they feel like they're being treated like adults because they have this opportunity to manage and save. It's a responsibility they don't traditionally get in the classroom."
The feeling you get when you've mastered something is hard to quantify. But as even most adults might agree, it's worth a ton. It's a feeling I never quite got playing the oldSimCity.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Judge blocks use of state bond money for California bullet train

Michael Kenny
Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny questions attorney Stuart Flashman, who is representing opponents of California's high-speed rail project, about the lawsuit seeking to halt funding for the bullet train on the grounds that the project violates promises made to voters. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press / November 8, 2013)

In a major legal blow to the California bullet train, a Sacramento judge ruled Monday that the project cannot tap bonds that voters approved for construction, a decision that could cause indefinite future delays.

Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny issued two decisions Monday, both of them based on findings that the state made key errors and failed to comply with voter-approved requirements as they moved the project toward a long-awaited groundbreaking. The decisions do not immediately stop the project, but they could sharply curtail the state’s ability to pay for the high-speed rail system in the future.
Construction of the Los Angeles-to-San Francisco train, more than a year behind schedule, was most recently slated to begin in the second quarter of 2014. The state still could start construction, though as a result of Kenny's rulings officials wouldn't have access to nearly $9 billion in rail bonds approved by voters in 2008.

Kenny ruled that the state does not have a valid financing plan, which was required under the 2008 bond measure, Proposition 1A. The measure included provisions intended to ensure the state did not start the project if it did not have all of the necessary funds to complete a self-supporting, initial operating segment.

The state rail agency created a funding plan, but it was an estimated $25 billion short of the amount needed to complete a first working section of the line.

Kenny ruled that the state must rescind the plan and create a new one, a difficult task because the state High-Speed Rail Authority hasn't identified sources of additional revenue to allocate to the project.
“It could be a fatal stumbling block that the state can never satisfy,” said Michael Brady, a Bay Area attorney who represented Kings County and two of its residents in a lawsuit that Kenny ruled on Monday.
Separately, in an action brought by the state to support its actions, Kenny found officials made critical errors in approving the sale of the bonds and declined to legally “validate” the sale. California Treasurer Bill Lockyer has said he will not sell bullet-train bonds without a court validation. It appears to be the first time in state history that a judge refused to validate a bond sale.

Kenny did not grant a request to stop the project or major construction contracts that were issued earlier this year to Tutor Perini, a construction firm, and Caltrans, the state transportation agency.

The state has argued it can use federal grant funds, which are not subject to the conditions of Proposition 1A, to start construction. But eventually the state will have to match federal grant funds. Without access to bond funds, the legislature would have to appropriate money from a different source.

State officials on Monday appeared to be seeking ways to press ahead with the project.

“We are reviewing both decisions to chart our next steps, but it is important to stress that the court again declined the opposition’s request to stop the high-speed rail project from moving forward,” said rail board chairman Dan Richard.

“Like all transformative projects, we understand that there will be many challenges that will be addressed as we go forward in building the nation’s first high-speed rail system.”

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Fool Proof City

America is full of brilliant people, many of them devoted to improving our cities and the lives of those that live in them. The most brilliant innovations in building cities, however, won't come from the current generation of politicians, professionals and advocates. That brilliance is already embodied in the traditional development pattern, a fool proof approach to building places that was developed the hard way: slowly and incrementally over time. If we want build strong towns, we should once again embrace that hard won wisdom.
This Friday we invite you to participate in the #BlackFridayParking Twitter event. We have all heard how our massive parking lots are sized for "the day after Thanksgiving." We want to show just how ridiculous that is. We invite Strong Towns advocates from all over the country to take pictures of parking lots this Friday and then post them to Twitter with the hashtag #BlackFridayParking. We'll collect those and share them in a format that everyone advocating against ridiculous parking standards can use. More specifics to come on Wednesday so stay tuned.
After working for five years as an engineer, I returned to graduate school to get a master's degree in urban and regional planning. My inspiration -- particularly as I was prompted to start my own planning company during my first months there -- was to get out in front of the bad engineering projects I had done up to that point. If we only did a better job of planning (or so I thought) then we wouldn't need to do these heroic and expensive engineering fixes.
After working about the same amount of time as a professional planner as I had a professional engineer, I started to have serious doubts about the ability of better planning to solve anything. I had recruited and trained a firm of very intelligent and skilled planners yet we were besieged by all the same shortcomings I had seen others struggle with. In the end, we were just as incapable of doing things any better even though doing things better was the central mission and obsessive focus of our organization.
In the dark nights I lay awake pondering what to make of it all, I found myself echoing things I had heard my parents say. They were teachers -- good people -- and when they (and to be fair, their colleagues, whom I also was around a lot while growing up) were frustrated with how things we going, their laments were predictable. It was parents' fault for not having their kids ready to learn. It was administrators' fault for putting so many obstacles in their way. It was the states' fault for cutting their funding or voters' for not approving that referendum. If only these other things would go the right way, they could do their job successfully.
Like them, I was doing everything I could with all the best intentions, but I was not getting the results our cities needed. We'd put together that awesome plan and then it wouldn't get implemented (blame the incompetent people at city hall). We'd set up the perfect zoning code and the first application in the door would challenge its underlying principle and the city council would give out a variance (blame the politicians). We'd work on a new development and get it all approved and then it would sit empty for a decade (and still counting) while the city plowed snow off the road so the realtors could show the lots (blame the market or the developer).
Worse yet, when things did work out, we credited our own genius for the success. We aren't alone. Go to any American Planning Association conference and you'll experience a lineup of stunning success stories. Session after session tout success after success, sterilizing any unsavory details to create a narrative that is proactive and affirming, as if the unique brilliance of the firm or planner presenting will create outcomes elusive to the rest of us. If only we were all so gifted or could just follow their approach.
Here's the important question: Was our success a byproduct of our genius or simply dumb luck? In other words, if we subsidize a hundred businesses, build a hundred business parks, install a hundred miles of pipe, will we not have a success story or two we can point to, one where all the random variables lined up in our favor? One where the voters and the staff and the politicians and the market all randomly came together to birth a victory?
Is that really success? In reality, isn't it more like holding up the Powerball winner as a model of how to do things just because they claim to have a scientific system? (Note that one man's superstition is another man's scientific approach.)
These are thoughts that turned me towards what eventually became Strong Towns. I could accept the fact that my failures were the byproduct of bad luck; things that were outside of my control. Could I also accept the fact that my successes were quite likely a byproduct of random fortune as well? And if so, what does that really mean in terms of what I should be doing or can actually hope to accomplish?
Those are not very comforting questions. As planners or engineers, as politicians or advocates, we want to believe there is a certain amount of control we can exercise, that our efforts and dedication constitute the determining factor in our success or failure. The entireyou need to spend money to make money meme set me off earlier this year (and continues to make my blood boil) because of the sheer arrogance of the notion. I'm a brilliant professional who knows best so I'm going to spend your money and, if it doesn't work out, I'm just going to blame the failure on your inadequacy or some other factor outside of my control. After all, you need to spend money to make money, sucker, and I did my part.
What would a different approach look like, one that didn't rely so much on either sheer genius (real or imagined) or on dumb luck? It just so happens that the traditional development pattern is such an approach and, as you will see, it has the breathtaking genius always found in a natural ecosystem that has evolved over thousands and thousands of years.
For millennia, around the world, in different cultures, different continents and different climates, we built places scaled to people. It has only been the last 60+ years that we in North America gradually stopped walking and started driving. For thousands of years prior, we walked everywhere, and so our places were built around people who walked. While there were many variations on the theme, the spacing, scale and proportions of these places were very similar to one another.
They key insight here is that the knowledge for how to build this way -- those fundamental underpinnings of spacing, scale and proportion -- does not descend from a theory or a brilliant individual but from a collection of natural experiments that occurred over and over again for thousands of years. In other words, people suffered and even died trying different things, figuring out how to build places that would endure. The places that endured long enough to be copied were the ultimate strong towns. They were resilient politically, socially, culturally and financially.
It is that last point I want to demonstrate today. The financial strength of the traditional development pattern is still visible today because the remnants of places built in that style still exist in many of our cities. Joe Minicozzi, one of today's most brilliant communicators, has taken data from all over the country and created amazing maps that show the financial productivity of different development patterns. He and I did some work in North Carolina earlier this year where he presented this map of High Point. The map shows financial productivity -- total value per acre -- of each parcel in the city with the height of the line representing the comparative productivity.
You'll never guess where the traditional downtown is at. (Hint: the purple in the middle.)
The thing that is most stunning about this is how dramatically more productive the traditional development pattern is. It is not just marginally more productive, it is many, many multiples more valuable than everything else on the map.
Let's look a little deeper. Some of that low productivity stuff on the edge of town includes the new, marquee investments in this area. For example, here is the value of the Big K and the Wal-Mart, both new facilities that represent large investments made in the auto-oriented style. You can picture the planners, engineers, economic developers, politicians and everyone else involved in making these happen touting them as sound investments. Jobs, growth and opportunity.
Here's one of those high-yielding properties in the traditional development pattern: Jimmy's pizza. Jimmy's pizza is likely nobody's idea of success and probably is never held up as a model for High Point (until Joe came to town, that is), yet the numbers don't lie. It is vastly more productive than the K-Mart or the Wal-Mart. Vastly more productive.

Jimmy's pizza represents the base unit of development in the traditional development pattern. It is the cheap little box that was the first increment of investment for cities everywhere. It is so simple to build that you literally couldn't mess it up. And look at how productive it is.
You take 14-acres and build a Big K, you'll have a site worth $5.4 million. You take 14-acres and build in the most basic increment of the traditional development pattern, an approach embodied in Jimmy's pizza, and that same area is worth $48.3 million.
It is so simple you can't screw it up.
Of course, I could pile on here. How do you expand and improve a Big K? You don't, but there are thousands of ways to improve Jimmy's pizza (few that require professional "expertise" or even more than a moderate level of competence). If your Big K fails, we can blame whoever we want, but we still have an economic disaster. If Jimmy's pizza fails, well....that building can be transformed into about anything. Give it some time and a surrounding neighborhood full of people on foot and that invisible hand will figure it out (if our antiquated zoning codes don't prevent it).
The traditional approach is, in a sense, fool proof.
America is full of brilliant people, many of them devoted to improving our cities and the lives of those that live in them. The most brilliant innovations in building cities, however, won't come from the current generation of politicians, professionals and advocates. That brilliance is already embodied in the traditional development pattern, a fool proof approach to building places that was developed the hard way: slowly and incrementally over time. If we want build strong towns, we should once again embrace that hard won wisdom.

Friday, November 22, 2013

OMA completes De Rotterdam “Vertical City” Tower

OMA announced today the completion of De Rotterdam Tower at the Wilhelmina Pier in Rotterdam. Widely described as a "Vertical City", stacked on top of the structure's six-story base are three transparent towers - built with 7 meters of space between them.
Completed within four years, the mixed-use structure has a total area of 160,000 m2. The building's program includes 60,000m2 of office space; 1,500m2 of hospitality and catering; a hotel with conference/event facilities and 280 rooms; 240 apartments; and leisure facilities.
Check out some images and read the announcement we received from OMA.

The OMA-designed and now completed De Rotterdam is the largest multipurpose building in the Netherlands. Image source: Rotterdam Image Bank; photography by Ossip van Duivenbode
The OMA-designed and now completed De Rotterdam is the largest multipurpose building in the Netherlands. Image source: Rotterdam Image Bank; photography by Ossip van Duivenbode

"Ellen van Loon: 'Efficiency has been a central design parameter from day one. The extreme market forces at play throughout the course of the project, far from being a design constraint, have in fact reinforced our original concept. The result is a dense, vibrant building for the city.'"

North view. Image courtesy of OMA; photography by Ossip van Duivenbode
North view. Image courtesy of OMA; photography by Ossip van Duivenbode

"With the building’s completion, a critical mass has been established on the Kop van Zuid, realizing the long-established vision of a second city center south of the Maas. The building is named after one of the original ships on the Holland America Line, which from 1873 to the late 1970s transported thousands of emigrating Europeans bound for New York from the Wilhelmina Pier, next to which De Rotterdam is situated."

Frontal view. Image courtesy of OMA; photography by Michel van de Kar
Frontal view. Image courtesy of OMA; photography by Michel van de Kar

"The three stacked and interconnecting towers of De Rotterdam rise 44 floors to a height of 150 meters and span a width of over 100 meters. Nevertheless, the building is exceptionally compact, with a mix of programs organized into distinct but overlapping blocks of commercial office space, residential apartments, hotel and conference facilities, restaurants and cafes."

Frontal view, south. Image courtesy of OMA; photography by Philippe Ruault
Frontal view, south. Image courtesy of OMA; photography by Philippe Ruault

Streetview, east. Image courtesy of OMA; photography by Philippe Ruault
Streetview, east. Image courtesy of OMA; photography by Philippe Ruault

"Rem Koolhaas: 'Despite its scale and apparent solidity, the building’s shifted blocks create a constantly changing appearance, different from every part of the city. The fact that it stands today represents a small triumph of persistence for the city, the developer, the contractor and the architects.'"

Streetview, west. Image courtesy of OMA; photography by Philippe Ruault
Streetview, west. Image courtesy of OMA; photography by Philippe Ruault

View on West tower. Image courtesy of OMA; photography by Philippe Ruault
View on West tower. Image courtesy of OMA; photography by Philippe Ruault

Facade view. Image courtesy of OMA; photography by Ossip van Duivenbode
Facade view. Image courtesy of OMA; photography by Ossip van Duivenbode

Atrium. Image courtesy of OMA; photography by Ossip van Duivenbode
Atrium. Image courtesy of OMA; photography by Ossip van Duivenbode

"The various phases of design and construction were supervised by partners-in-charge Rem Koolhaas, Ellen van Loon and Reinier de Graaf, and associate-in-charge Kees van Casteren. De Rotterdam is developed by MAB Development and OVG Real Estate."

Inside view on east tower. Image courtesy of OMA; photography by Ossip van Duivenbode
Inside view on east tower. Image courtesy of OMA; photography by Ossip van Duivenbode

Thursday, November 21, 2013

A Bewitching Look at Migration Patterns Among American States

By: John Metcalfe

New York residents must really get sick of the winter snow and gloom. How else to explain that more of them moved to Florida in 2012 than any other state?
That's just one of the fascinating nuggets of demographic trivia waiting to be uncovered in this wild-looking visualization of state-to-state migrations. The prismatic, arc-veined portal – like peering into the scope of an alien hyper-rifle – shows the movements of the roughly 7.1 million Americans who relocated across state lines in 2012. It's based on the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey, an annual tabulation of moves that just so happens to include the involuntary uprootings of prisoners and members of the military.
"Restless America" is the work of Chris Walker, a data-analytics virtuoso in Mumbai who also made that clever visualization of property values in New York City. As to why he embarked on this project, Walker explains via email:
I'm really interested in migration, as I think migration patterns show that people still see opportunity and hope for better lives, and they're willing to take risks. I see migration as a form of 'creative destruction'; it renews and enriches some communities while eroding others. This process strains individual cities, but I think it's healthy for the country overall. People need to dream and be allowed to act on their dreams. I wanted to show this on a national scale.
The graphic may look like spaghetti pie at first glance, but it really is beautifully simple once you learn how to navigate it. Here's Walker explaining about that:
The visualization is a circle cut up into arcs, the light-colored pieces along the edge of the circle, each one representing a state. The arcs are connected to each other by links, and each link represents the flow of people between two states. States with longer arcs exchange people with more states (California and New York, for example, have larger arcs). Links are thicker when there are relatively more people moving between two states. The color of each link is determined by the state that contributes the most migrants, so for example, the link between California and Texas is blue rather than orange, because California sent over 62,000 people to Texas, while Texas only sent about 43,000 people to California. Note that, to keep the graphic clean, I only drew a link between two states if they exchanged at least 10,000 people.
For an example, let's go back to New York. If you put the mouse pointer over the state name, the graphic quickly informs you that more people recently exited than entered – 405,864 to 270,053, respectively. It also resolves into this minimalist view:
Gray strings represent all the states that New York sent more than 10,000 people to in 2012. The thickest band runs to Florida; click on it and you'll see that 53,009 New Yorkers headed for the Sunshine State and are perhaps appearing in Florida Man's Twitter feed this very instant. Conversely, 27,392 Floridians moved to New York and might now be experiencing the joy of $14.50 packs of cigarettes.
Regarding the uneven transfer of bodies between these particular states, Walker writes that his "hunch is that these are retirees" decamping for the balmy Southeast. Other popular destinations for people escaping from New York include New Jersey and Pennsylvania, which Walker has a theory for, as well: "More likely these folks are leaving pricey New York City for more affordable suburbs in neighboring states."
Not all interstate transmissions are this lucid. Take a look at California, for instance, which last year had migration pathways to more than 30 states:
With such a geyser of colored lines, it might be hard to immediately fathom a most basic point that in 2012 more people left California (566,986) than entered (493,641). Walker believes the imbalance may be due to residents tired of exorbitant prices seeking a lower cost of living. Here are a few more of his insights:
  • Migrants are flocking to Florida. Interestingly the state contributing the most migrants to Florida is neighboring Georgia. Texas, New York, and North Carolina are the next largest contributors.
  • Texas is the second-largest destination for migrants. Over 500,000 people moved to Texas in 2012. People tend to come from the Southeast, Southwest, and the West, with the biggest contributor being California. 62,702 Californians packed up and moved to the Lone Star state in 2012.
  • Most people leaving DC tend to stay in the area, opting for Virginia or Maryland. The economy of DC, centered around the federal government, seems to discourage more distant migrations.
  • The migrants who leave two very cold states, Maine and Alaska, have very clear preferences. Their most popular destinations are Florida and California.
Images created by Chris Walker

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Pop-Up Planning: New Methods for Transforming the Public Process

Calling all urban planners and designers of the public realm! It’s time to turn the traditional planning process on its head! Are you looking to push the envelope beyond the traditional community workshop with its rows of chairs facing the front, unimaginative PowerPoint presentations at the lectern, and weary audiences dissatisfied with the process? Want to liven up the planning process? Well pop a ‘Pop-Up’ into it and see what happens.
The City of Santa Monica and Melendrez - Los Angeles-based urban designers – along with help fromCommunity Arts Resources, brought the idea of pilot and pop-up, tactical urbanism into the planning process, with a festival/workshop/installation called Pop-Up MANGo, the first event of its kind in the region. Pop-Up MANGo gave citizens an opportunity to see and evaluate public realm improvements during the planning process, hands-on. Pop-Up MANGo – named after the Michigan Avenue Neighborhood Greenway- showcased temporary installations of possible improvements for a new Greenway corridor such as: traffic calming devices, traffic circles, chicanes, curb extensions, enhanced landscaping, mini-parks, and places for neighbors to gather.
The 21st Century has been marked by a trend of temporary and DIY urbanism, “popping-up” in cities around the US, from New York’s temporary removal of cars in Times Square, to parklets and plazas carved from residual space in the streets of San Francisco and Los Angeles. Urban dwellers are increasingly carving out, demanding, and being drawn to these neat and quirky creative spaces, in a bottom-up approach to urban transformation. And with NACTO’s recent release of their great Urban Street Design Guide, which includes guidelines for handfuls of these sorts of improvements, it looks like these trends will increasingly be codified, embraced, and standardized over the coming years.
PopUP MANGo translated this idea of immediate, fun, temporary, and quirky pop-ups into the planning process itself, with demonstrations of potential improvements. The PopUp MANGo event was light hearted and community-oriented with local musicians, food trucks, booths with local organizations, arts activities for children, and a ‘passport’ program that guided people through the installations and gauged feedback. There were over 400 people in attendance and the feedback gathered is now helping the planning team craft a locally-rooted and locally-vetted design for the potential new Greenway through the City.
There likely will be more and more of these pop-up planning sessions, ‘popping up’ around the nation… Want to do something like this in your own community? Pop-Up MANGo’s toolbox consisted of mostly donated items:
  • Straw wattle to demarcate the edges of the installations
  • Plants and trees to fill them in
  • Giant flower stencils painted with colorful (and temporary) spray chalk
  • Traffic signage for safety
Think local: Pinpoint things that are unique to the neighborhood to make the event distinctive and place-specific. Santa Monica is a creative city that values art and community collaboration; the design team used big artistic stencils and the help of community volunteers to give the event a creative and community vibe. The team also reached out beforehand to many local organizations to vet designs and event strategies. Santa Monica Police Department, Santa Monica Spoke, Santa Monica Walks, and Meals on Wheels West were all present. A kids’ art workshop making bike reflectors was held as part of the event, in collaboration with the Santa Monica Museum of Art. The event itself took place in the street right on the alignment so that people who lived along it could easily participate.
Think fun: The days of humdrum planning processes should be a thing of the past. Think about what can transform your standard public workshop into a real event for the community; an Experience with a capital ‘E.’ Local performers, special cuisine, etc. Know someone who can install a temporary piece of art that’s interactive? Have a friend in the community who is a one-man band? Get them there! Having free food as an incentive worked at Pop-Up MANGo, where grant funding allowed budget for lunch vouchers for participants who visited all six stations.
Think stats: The beauty of ‘PopUp Planning’ is that you can get a ton of people to participate in the planning process and it can be a lot more rewarding than traditional processes since participants can see and feel improvements first hand. Be prepared to gather information in a thoughtful way so that you can use it to build momentum and make decisions in the planning process. At Pop-Up MANGo participants filled out questionnaire comment cards which allowed the team to rank community priorities quantitatively. Don’t forget to follow up afterwards with participants and community members to showcase how the planning process directly impacted design and planning decisions.
The streets come alive!
Want more information? Contact Jason Kligier or Amber Hawkes
Amber Hawkes is an urban designer at Melendrez in Los Angeles and part of the faculty at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs Urban Planning Department.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Cradle to Cradle Innovation Challenge 2013 Winners reinvent safe, sustainable building products

Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute and Make It Right honored the winners of their Innovation Challenge on Nov. 15 at the Innovation Celebration in New York City. The challenge was established in 2012 as a chance for innovators to reinvent and respond to the issues on how building products are designed, manufactured, and consumed.

Starting from 144 applicants to 10 finalists, the jury chose four winners:
  • 1st place: bioMASON biobrick
  • 2nd place: Ecovative Mushroom Insulation
  • 3rd place tie: ECOR Universal Construction Panels and ROMA Domus Mineral Paints
The winners will share a $250,000 prize. Jury members included executives from Make It Right, U.S. Green Building Council, Google, First Community Housing, The Honest Company, GIGA in China, Schmidt Family Foundation, and Delta Development Group in the Netherlands.
Innovation Challenge 2013 - First place: bioMASON
Innovation Challenge 2013 - First place: bioMASON

1st place: bioMASON
Innovation Challenge 2013 - First place: bioMASON: Growing bricks, not another brick in the wall: Ginger Krieg Dosier at TEDxWWF

"bioMASON presents a brick that is 'grown' instead of fired. A bacterial byproduct cements sand particles together to form a durable matrix. Because high heat is not required, these bricks have a much lower embodied energy and emissions profile while still having the positive environmental attributes of conventional bricks."
2nd place: Ecovative

Innovation Challenge 2013 - Second place: Ecovative
Innovation Challenge 2013 - Second place: Ecovative

Innovation Challenge 2013 - Second place: Ecovative - Eben Bayer: Are mushrooms the new plastic?

"Ecovative Mushroom® Insulation, is made from agricultural wastes bound together with a fungal material which is naturally fire-resistant and does not require added, toxic flame retardants or blowing agents that contribute to climate change. Additionally, the insulation is compostable and can return to nature after use."
3rd place: ECOR®

Innovation Challenge 2013 - Third place: ECORⓇ
Innovation Challenge 2013 - Third place: ECORⓇ

Innovation Challenge 2013 - Third place: ECORⓇ

"ECOR® is a sustainable alternative to wood, composites, aluminum and plastic. ECOR® advanced environmental composites present an expanded family of innovative natural building materials that are strong, lightweight, flexible, and environmentally friendly."
3rd place: ROMA

Innovation Challenge 2013 - Third place: ROMA
Innovation Challenge 2013 - Third place: ROMA

Innovation Challenge 2013 - Third place: ROMA Paints

"ROMA Domus Mineral Paints are derived from natural materials, washable, free of toxic chemicals, free of asthmagens, hypoallergenic, prohibit bacteria that form mold, and absorb CO2."

Images and videos courtesy of Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Methodolatry and the Art of Measure


The new wave of urban data science

MAP Architects, Svalbard Architectural Expedition, 2013. [Photo by MAP Architects]

In downtown Brooklyn, not far from where I live, New York University recently launched a public-private research center dedicated to advancing “the science of cities.” That word,science, has a way of creeping into public discourse these days. When the inaugural class in Applied Urban Science and Informatics arrived at the Center for Urban Science + Progress this fall, the students were personally welcomed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose Applied Sciences NYC initiative funded the center’s creation in 2012. 

On the center’s website, director Steven Koonin acknowledges that today’s cities have to be more “efficient, resilient, sustainable.” And to get there, of course, they need data: “The digital age has produced an incredible ability to collect, store, and analyze data. Bringing this ‘big data’ to bear on societal problems — from clean air to transportation to healthcare — is at the heart of CUSP.” With its various academic, corporate and government partners— including, among many others, Carnegie Mellon University and the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay; IBM, Cisco and power company Consolidated Edison; and a bevy of NYC municipal departments, including the police and fire departments — the center, and its all-white, all-male leadership team, perched high above Brooklyn’s MetroTech, “observes, analyzes, and models cities to optimize outcomes, prototype new solutions, formalize new tools and processes, and develop new expertise/experts.” 

NYU thus joins many corporately branded pursuits of algorithmic urban efficiency — IBM’s Smarter Cities program, Cisco’s Smart+Connected Communities Institute, Samsung’s u-City initiative, Intel’s Sustainable Connected Cities project, Living PlanIT’s Urban Operating System, and various automobile companies’ efforts to envision new “urban futures.” These Big Data approaches have provoked popular concern about surveillance and privacy, and raised questions among urbanists about how we’ll account for all the informal urban movements and transactions that take place off the sensor grid and outside the formal economy. 

Luckily, most cities now have a growing corps of smartphone-equipped agents on bikes out in the streets, tracking and mapping all things informal — either to fill the gaps in the “official” dataset, or to construct an alternative dataset for unofficial use. We have citizen scientists and public labs, urban explorers and infrastructural tourists generating and collecting their own data, in the form of quantitative readings of air qualitysoil samplesfrom brownfields, or noise readings from industrial sites. Elsewhere, we have civic hackershacking away on open data, developing a cornucopia of apps and data visualizations to disseminate social and environmental justice, one iPhone at a time. 

Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science, Balloon Mapping Kit and Mobile Spectrometer, 2013. [Photos byJeffrey Warren]

Despite their apparent differences in scale and ideology, these two camps — the institutional and the individual, the corporate and collective, the big and little — are aligned at a foundational level. What links them is a way of conceptualizing and operationalizing the city: theirs is a city with an underlying code or logic, one that can be hacked and made more efficient — or just, or sustainable, or livable — with a tweak to its algorithms or an expansion of its dataset. They also seem to share a faith in instrumental rationality, or what Evgeny Morozov calls “solutionism” — as well as a tendency toward data fetishism and “methodolatry,” the aestheticization and idolization of method. 

Cities Are Made of Data
The contemporary “smart cities” model of urbanism is predicated on the rise of private-sector development, the emergence of new construction techniques that allow for the rapid erection of “cities in a box,” and of course the availability of new technology — including, in particular, tools for generating, capturing and analyzing data, and feeding processed data back into the urban system. But this computational vision isn’t entirely new. We can trace today’s smart cities back to the durable metaphor of the city-as-machine. While the metaphor is commonly regarded as a modernist invention, cities have long relied on machinic modules; the grid plan, for instance, has for millennia served as a “machine” for efficient circulation. Urban historians have also conceived the city as a machine for information management. As Lewis Mumford writes in The City in History:

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. ... 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. [1]
Media theorist Friedrich Kittler observes that cities have historically been not only sites of data storage and transmission, but also of data-processing and formatting. “It is almost as if the historian of cities [Mumford] had forgotten his insight that part of the greatness of ancient Florence consisted in having erected, with the Uffizi, the first office building — a central bureau for data processing.” [2]

The Uffizi, ca. 1870. [Photo by Giorgio Sommer]

We’ve also developed, especially over the past few centuries, new modes of representation and tools of administration that have reinforced the conception of the city as a machine for rational management. Ola Söderström has explained how the development of new mapping and visualization techniques —the ichnographic plan’s stabilizing, “precise and totalizing” representation of urban space; the master plan’s use of Victorian social statistics to divide the city into various demographic “zones”; and urban social cartography’s depersonalized, aggregate representations of social districts, which allowed for their administration through “curative urban planning interventions” — have contributed to the increasing “rationalization” of the urban landscape. [3] And media scholar James Donald acknowledges the role that “population surveys, police records, sanitary reports, statistics, muck-raking journalism, and photography” played in rendering the city “an object of knowledge, and so an object of government.” [4] 

Today’s cities are morphing into a new kind of machine, for a more networked form of information management. Now we have cities “developing new artificial nervous systems, to supersede those articulated metabolic systems of the 19th century,” as Dan Hill puts it. The former urban informatics leader at Arup (now CEO of the creative think tank Fabrica)writes

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. [5]
Data Fetishism
While the notion of the city as a data-generating, storing, processing and formatting machine might not be new, the reduction of the city to those functions — which are increasingly automated — and the reification of that data, is distinct to our time. Imagine the CUSP researchers merging massive streams of data to map all real-time traffic, weather, energy use, mobile device use, financial transactions, criminal activity, etc. — producing on their multiple flat-screens a map so rich that it becomes a territory itself. Then imagine that processed data, filtered through algorithms, feeding back into and transforming urban space or affecting human behavior in real-time (or pretty darn fast): re-syncing the streetlights or rerouting cabs to areas of high cell-phone activity. Morozov has identified the impulse behind such approaches as “solutionism,” which recasts “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!” [6]

Songdo, South Korea, envisioned as The City of the Future by Cisco's Smart+Connected Communities Institute. [Image by Cisco]

The default recourse to data-fication, the presumption that all meaningful flows and activity can be sensed and measured, is taking us toward a future in which the people shaping our cities and their policies rarely have the opportunity to consider the nature of our stickiest urban problems and the kind of questions they raise. Often they do not even stop to wonder if the blips — which  “the system” flags as “snafus” or “clogs” — are really problems at all. Are all “inefficiencies” — having parent-teacher conferences, for example, rather than standardized electronic evaluations posted to a government website — necessarily obstacles to be overcome? What’s more, Morozov says, “In promising almost immediate and much cheaper results,” solutionist techniques “undermine support for more ambitious, more intellectually stimulating, but also more demanding reform projects.” [7] If we can simply automate the depersonalized dispensation of social welfare, there may not be sufficient motivation to get our hands dirty digging for root problems like poverty, unequal access to healthcare and information services, and socioeconomic disparity in school performance.

Is there an ethos, a value system, driving these data-generated processes, or is it all just algorithms? Of course, we wouldn’t say that there’s no ideology inherent in the algorithms themselves, but the computers powering these Big Data projects run billions of operations that cumulatively produce substantive transformations in the urban landscape, with little regard for underlying values. As Orit Halpern and her colleagues argue, in their study of Songdo, South Korea, as a site for “testbed urbanism,” the rise of such programs “marks a turn against the faith in liberal subjectivity, denigrates the place of older political processes in decision making … and operates at a level far beneath consciousness.” [8] 

Mark Foster Gage has identified a similarly “solutionist” and ethically compromised approach in what he calls “research architecture,” which often relies heavily on data collection and visualization and assumes “a legitimate cause-and-effect relationship between cursorily observed problems and their subsequent architectural solutions.” Research architecture too often cultivates the “mistaken assumption that we are always more powerful in dealing with social injustice or inequality in our role as architects than in our roles as citizens or activists.” [9] How many of today’s urban designers and policymakers and public servants see themselves as more powerful, and efficient, in dealing with urban problems as data scientists than as activists or critics or citizens or humanists?

Fields Arranged by Purity. [Comic by xkcd]

Data Humanism
Recall Mumford’s claim, in 1961, that “our present ingenious electronic mechanisms for storing and transmitting information” are crude in comparison with “the complex human order of the city.” More than 50 years later, even our exponentially more ingenious electronics are incapable of running algorithms that can fully describe and predict the urban sociocultural ecology. As John Thackara notes, so many of our urban resources, like health care, depend on interactions that are “relational, embodied, and context-dependent.” Trust is an important part of those exchanges, and “trust is not an algorithm.” [10] 

Even quantitative metrics like energy use are not as simple as they seem. Sarah Bell points out that we can’t simply monitor energy use with infrared cameras to track buildings’ heat loss; we also have to consider cultural norms, including dress codes that require men to wear suits in the hottest months of summer and thereby necessitate excessive air conditioning. [11] “The intelligence of cities lies in the individual and collective minds of people who live there, not merely in the technologies they deploy,” Bell states. “Smart city technologies can provide useful knowledge about urban services and systems, but intelligent implementation requires critical understanding of what they amplify and what they reduce.” 

Kate Crawford, of Microsoft Research, agrees that data scientists would benefit from better qualitative analysis of their quantitative data. [12] Those making and using urban data should follow the example of social scientists and humanists, pausing regularly to consider where the data come from, and how they’re derived and analyzed. “We know that data insights can be found at multiple levels of granularity,” Crawford writes, “and by combining methods such as ethnography with analytics, or conducting semi-structured interviews paired with information retrieval techniques, we can add depth to the data we collect. We get a much richer sense of the world when we ask people the why and the how not just the ‘how many.’”

Earlier this year, NYU launched the Marron Institute on Cities and the Urban Environment, funded by a $40 million gift from Lightyear Capital Chairman Donald Marron, who, not coincidentally, founded Data Resources Inc., the world’s largest source of economic data, in 1969. The new institute ties together three NYU programs: the interdisciplinary Institute for Public Knowledge, the business school’s Urbanization Project and CUSP. Ostensibly it will provide an opportunity for CUSP researchers to critically frame their data through the lenses of the social sciences and humanities, and for those fields to explore more deeply the potential of data-driven methodologies. Announcing the new venture — again, beside Mayor Bloomberg — university president John Sexton acknowledged that “Cities are more than just infrastructure and technology; they are also social interactions, culture, and neighborhoods.” 

Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter at a Code for America civic hackathon in 2012. [Photo by Alex Yule]

Citizen Data
Yet it’s not enough simply to get social scientists and humanists in on the action of extracting data from urban residents. Those residents themselves should play a greater role in determining how, and if, they’re exploited in the production of urban data; and they might want to generate data of their own, to feed back into the city, as agents of what Adam Greenfield calls “read/write urbanism.” [13] Dan Hill envisions a future of grassroots engagement in urban governance:

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. [14]
We, the urban publics, aren’t limited merely to responding to the system — e.g., turning off the tap when a bathroom console tells us we’ve used more water this month than last. We have the potential to “hack” the official urban network with user-processed and -formatted data.

Hon*Celerator civic hackathon in Honolulu, Hawaii, 2012. [Photo by Ryan Ozawa]

Still, it seems to me, even if we “citizens” are generating the data — via D.I.Y. science projects, field surveys, hackathons, etc. — we’re still facing the city as a computational problem. And the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. [15] If we gather lots of (mostly well-educated male) programmers, armed with expensive machinery, and put them in a room with a tank of coffee, their version of “social change” will almost always involve finding the right open data set and hacking the crap out of it. Not only does the hackathon reify the dataset, but the whole form of such events — which emphasize efficiency and presume that the end result, regardless of the challenge at hand, will be an app or another software product — upholds the algorithmic ethos. 

We’d do well to think more about the motivations and ideologies behind, and methodologies implied by, these quick-attack “-thons” and “sprints” and “slams.” “Most companies think that if you can just get hackers, pizza, and data together in a room, magic will happen,” contends DataKind’s Jake Porway. Hackathons often lead with the data, from which participants then retroactively construct a question or problem. Instead, Porway argues, it’s imperative to begin with a clearly defined problem — one articulated through consultation with specialists who understand not only how the data were derived, but also how those data reflect, or fail to reflect, on-the-ground urban realities — and then involve those same specialists in evaluating the end results. We might also consider the possibility that there are no “results” to evaluate: perhaps no app is the right approach. Perhaps a hackathon could end with the admission that the data offer no solutions — that particular urban challenges simply can’t be “conditioned” or “normalized” into algorithmically-tuned efficiency. 

Data Aesthetics
Part of data’s appeal, we must acknowledge, is aesthetic. Data lends itself to presentation in sexy visualizations and packaging in sleek apps. Philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend, in Against Method, reminds us that science — and this applies particularly well to data science — proceeds not only by rational, quantifiable means, but also through “irrationalmeans such as propaganda, emotion, ad hoc hypotheses, and appeal to prejudices of all kinds.” [16] Data are, as intellectual historian Daniel Rosenberg notes, “rhetorical.” “Data” is the plural of the Latin datum, which is the neuter past participle of the verb dare, to give. Thus, “a ‘datum’ in English … is something given in an argument, something taken for granted.” [17] There’s no such thing as “raw” data; all data are formed through the means by which they are derived and presented. And there’s an aesthetic dimension to their derivation and presentation.

Survey instruments used by Venue, 2012–13. [Photo by Nicola Twilley]

The exhausting ubiquity of data visualizations — thousands more of which are sure to emerge from CUSP — has made it clear that data, in their “givenness,” are inherently aesthetic. Yet in many recent citizen science, public lab and design research projects, even the methods for generating data are stylized; we see the rise of an aesthetics of measurement. Researchers seem to be fascinated by the sensory and affective dimensions of measuring things — the fact that measurement isn’t a purely objective task — and, to feed their passion, they’re designing a host of measurement tools as objets d’art: lovely little bento boxes of tools, fanciful surveying equipment, deliciously weird Tom Sachs-ishvisioning machines. Speaking of Sachs: we can certainly see the influence of the artist’s own modus operandi, knolling, or the ordered arrangement of objects, in many of these projects. 

Consider Venue, “a portable media rig, interview studio, multi-format event platform, and forward-operating landscape research base” that recently toured the continent documenting “overlooked yet fascinating sites through the eyes of the innovators, trendsetters, entrepreneurs, and designers at the forefront of ideas today.” By “record[ing] and survey[ing] each site through an array of both analog and high-tech instruments,” the Venue team aimed to “assemble a cumulative, participatory, and media-rich core sample of the greater North American landscape.” In an interview with MAS Context, Venue’s Nicola Twilley confessed that their use of various instruments was in large part poetic, aesthetic: “a self-conscious gesture to the fact that the devices that you choose to bring along with you already are embedding assumptions onto the landscape.” [18] Venue partner Geoff Manaugh added that “once you have the instruments to measure the landscape, you start paying attention to that thing that you maybe would have not otherwise thought about or noticed.” The instrument embodies a mode of observation that conditions how one engages with the landscape and what data one collects. 

Venue participants also kept a logbook in which they recorded site variables such as ground wind direction and speed, solar wind direction and speed, sun spots and barometric pressure, and they tagged the posts on their research blog with this metadata. Twilley admitted to “amassing big amounts of data about the landscape and not even knowing how to make sense of it” — generating data not for sense-making but perhaps for all those irrational means Feyerabend talks about. Venue’s pastiche of tools and methods from journalism and geology makes measurement an aesthetic endeavor.

Top and bottom right: Venue's walnut toolbox, under construction in the workshop of the designer, Semigood. [Photos by Venue] Bottom left: Interstate Road Trip Specialist Field Kit, 2006. [Photo by the Los Angeles Urban Rangers]

Consider also the Los Angeles Urban Rangers’ 2006 project, Interstate: The American Road Trip, which was “intended to facilitate sharpened observational skills for reading 21st century roadside geographies.” A key component of the project was their Interstate Road Trip Specialist Field Kit, an objet d’art itself, which contained tools whose methodological utility was explained in an accompanying Field Guide, which I discussed earlier in this journal. Then there is David Garcia, of Lund University, whose Svalbard Architectural Expedition in the Arctic utilized a range of beautiful, custom-designed surveying instruments, which tested the sound-absorption properties of snow and the insulation properties of ice and snow tiles, as well as the translucency of those tiles; investigated how the extreme landscape and climate impact the visible appearance of light; and warned when polar bears were approaching. This data will implicitly feed into the creation of more contextually responsive design. 

We might trace these recent “toolkit” projects back to precursors like Fluxus game kits, and to the use of cultural probes in design research. Eric Paulos and Tom Jenkins have designed “urban probes” that are meant to “bypass many classical design approaches — opting instead for rapid, nimble, often intentional encroachments on urban places rather than following a series of typical design iteration cycles.” Probes, they write, are a “fail-fast approach,” a means of “conducting rapid urban application discovery and evaluation metrics.” [19] Or, as Kirsten Boehner, William Gaver and Andy Boucher explain, probes “open up possibilities, rather than converging toward singular truths”; they favor “playfulness, exploration and enjoyment.” [20] The new wave of designerly toolkits are similarly speculative, generative, meant to stimulate new ideas rather than deduce facts. Venue and company have adopted what sociologists Cecilia Lury and Nina Wakeford would consider “inventive methods,” methods whose thoughtful application has the potential to “address a problem and change that problem as it performs itself,” but whose impact can’t be given in advance. [21] 

The specific aesthetic qualities of these projects seem to follow from the aesthetics of administration, archival aesthetics and the aesthetics of the lab. Undoubtedly they are also inspired by the circuit bending and “make your own tools” movements. But still, I wonder what has made measurement and data collection — often with analog tools — so cool, so worth aestheticizing, in this age of sentient technologies and Big Data. Perhaps it’s partly because, in contrast with the machines automatically harvesting mountains of data, these toolkits allow for a slower, more intentional, reflective, site-specific, embodied means of engaging with research sites and subjects. In some cases, they also allow researchers todesign their methods. Kirsten Boehner and her colleagues note that the design of a probe or methodological toolkit reflects the character of both the research site or subject and the researchers; and at the same time, it serves rhetorically to elicit a particular kind of user engagement.

Christopher Erdman's project, Perception and Interpretation of the Aurora Borealis, part of the Svalbard Architectural Expedition, 2013. [Photo via Lund University]

Data Politics
In the appendix to his 2010 book, Political Aesthetics, Crispin Sartwell proposes 52 potential research projects that would “encourage the greatest possible variety of methodologies.” Proposal #2 is a study of the “political aesthetics of measurement.” [22] That’s precisely what we need here, since both camps of urban research I’ve discussed — the Big Data initiatives of CUSP and IBM, and the citizen science projects of D.I.Y. data-collectors and manipulators — are simultaneously aesthetic and political. Similarly, we need to consider the relationships between (1) data collection, which is foregrounded in much of this work; (2) method; and (3) methodology. [23] In many cases, concern with the aesthetics of measurement and data overpowers considerations of how that measurement functions as a method. By method I mean “the techniques or procedures used to gather and analyze data related to some research question or hypotheses.” Methodology refers to the “strategy, plan of action, process or design lying behind the choice and use of particular methods; and the connection of the choice and use of methods to the desired outcomes.” [24] 

Of course we are free to use tools for tools’ sake and gather data in an exploratory fashion, as part of inventive, speculative research. But to combat fetishism of the tools and the data we also have to think harder about what it all adds up to — or what we want it all to add up to — and select our tools in support of larger epistemological and theoretical goals. We would do well to pause and question the nature of our urban problems, and consider our strategies for gaining better understanding of those problems, before jumping to the conclusion that data have the answers. 

I am not a data scientist, but I do work in fields in which the methods and ideals of “scientific” data collection have a growing appeal. And sometimes the most readily apparent or accessible way — for students in particular — to gain entry to those complex practices is to take on the aesthetics of measurement: to devise a clever data collection system, to accumulate a reassuringly big pile of data, and to massage that data into a persuasive visualization. That’s a worrisome trend. This isn’t to say that engagement with the affective or stylistic dimensions of measurement precludes engagement with its larger methodological functions; Feyerabend has shown us otherwise. Rather, I hope these concerns are brought into alignment: that the methodological packaging suits the purpose, the form serves the function, the knolling serves the knowledge. 

To isolate these concerns, and to focus only on measurement for measurement’s sake — or its scientific “look” — feels a bit like methodolatry, a neologism composed, as you might expect, by mixing “method” and “idolatry.” Valeria Janesick defines methodolatry as “a preoccupation with selecting and defending methods to the exclusion of the actual substance of the story being told.” [25] One manifestation of methodolatry is thefetishization of method, or a preoccupation with method to the extent that it directs one’s research, perhaps even driving the questions one asks. Medical scientists speak of the “worship of the clinical trial,” and we of course see plenty of examples in urban and design research in which the data lead the way. Another manifestation of methodolatry is theidolization of method — the adoration of measurement’s image or representation: the knolled toolbox, the hacked perceptual machines, the scientific flowchart, the seductive data visualization. 

Or perhaps these methodolatrous projects, in their aestheticization of measurement, are calling our attention to presumptions about scientific rigor, parodying our algorithmic impulses, tacitly asking questions about the ideology of a pervasive culture of measurement and assessment. Perhaps, despite their implicit alliance with CUSP and Cisco and the like, our citizen data gatherers want to highlight the “givenness,” the rhetorical nature of that data, to show its inherent irrationality, to demonstrate that the “science of cities” is also, necessarily, an art.


1. Lewis Mumford, The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects (New York: Harcourt, 1961): 569.
2. Friedrich A. Kittler, “The City Is a Medium,” New Literary History 27: 4 (1996): 721-2.
3. Ola Soderstrom, “Paper Cities: Visual Thinking in Urban Planning,” Ecumene 111: 3 (1996): 149-81.
4. James Donald, Imagining the Modern City (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999): 127.
5. Dan Hill, “The Adaptive City,” City of Sound (September 7, 2008).
6. Evgeny Morozov, To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism (Philadelphia, Public Affairs, 2013): 5.
7. Morozov, 9.
8. Orit Halpern, Jesse LeCavalier, Nerea Cavillo, and Wolfgang Pietsch, “Test Bed Urbanism,” Public Culture 25:2 (2013): 294.
9. Mark Foster Gage, “In Defense of Design,” Log 16 (2009): 42.
10. John Thackara, “Trust Is Not an Algorithm: Big Data Are Hot, But They Also Miss a Lot,” Doors of Perception(June 9, 2013), published simultaneously on Change Observer.
11. Sarah Bell, “System City: Urban Amplification and Inefficient Engineering,” in Urban Constellations, Ed. Matthew Gandy (Berlin: Verlag GmbH, 2011): 74.
12. Kate Crawford, “The Hidden Biases in Big Data,” Harvard Business Review (April 1, 2013).
13. Adam Greenfield, “Frameworks for Citizen Responsiveness: Towards a Read/Write Urbanism,” Urban Omnibus(July 7, 2010).
14. Hill, op cit.
15. Audra Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” 1979 in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Freedom: CA: Crossing, 1984): 110-113.
16. Paul Feyerabend, Against Method, new edition (Verso 1975, 2010): 113.
17. Daniel Rosenberg, “Data Before the Fact,” in “Raw Data” is an Oxymoron, ed. Lisa Gitelman (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013): 18.
18. Iker Gill, “A Year on the Road with Venue,” MAS Context 19 (Fall 2013).
19. Eric Paulos and Tom Jenkins, “Urban Probes: A Methodology for Conducting Urban Computing Research,” Urban Atmospheres; excerpted from Paulos and Jenkins, “Urban Probes: Encountering our Emerging Urban Atmospheres,” presented at conference of the Association for Computing Machinery Special Interest Group on Computer–Human Interaction (April 2005).
20. Kirsten Boehner, William Gaver and Andy Boucher, “Probes,” in Inventive Methods: The Happening of the Social, ed. Celia Lury and Nina Wakford (New York: Routledge, 2012): 185, 194.
21. Celia Lury and Nina Wakeford, “Introduction: A Perpetual Inventory," in Inventive Methods: The Happening of the Social, 7.
22. Crispin Sartwell, Political Aesthetics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010).
23. See C. R. Kothari, Research Methodology; Methods & Techniques, 2nd Ed. (New Delhi: New Age International, 2004): 8.
24. Michael Crotty, The Foundations of Social Research: Meaning and Perspective in the Research Process(Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1998): 3.
25. Valerie J. Janesick, “The Dance of Qualitative Research Design: Metaphor, Methodolatry, and Meaning,” inHandbook of Qualitative Research, Eds. N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1994): 215.