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City of Big Data Makes the Invisible, Visible

By Andrew Schneider
July 1, 2014
Photo courtesy CAF
At the Chicago Architecture Foundation's exhibition on big data, a resin model of Chicago has been digitally enhanced to project statistics on everything from demographics to tweets.


In the lobby of Daniel Burnham’s Railway Exchange building, the Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF) has made the invisible, visible.

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For the exhibition Chicago: City of Big Data, CAF turned its centerpiece Chicago Model—a 320-square-foot resin replica of the city’s downtown, updated annually to reflect additions and subtractions—into an interpretive piece through which to “view” the city’s data. Encompassing everything from tweets to demographics to air quality, so-called big data is increasingly employed by city governments, developers, and designers to create smarter infrastructure that better integrates the urban environment with its populace.

The model—at the center of Burnham’s marble, brass, steel and glass lobby—makes a gigantic impression. Add to that the interpretive technology that brings it to life and the result is a place where it’s very easy to while away a few hours.

Tearing ones eyes from the grand staircase, visitors that aren’t immediately pulled to the scale model can review the “Chicago Dashboard”; it’s a digital screen that displays real-time updates on a variety of data points from bus and train arrival times, availability of the city’s Divvy bike-share system, heat maps, and building permits to even the city’s median income, gross domestic product, and consumer price index. Also on the list, of course, are the number of visitors to the exhibition (just over 58,000 this week) and the #chicagobigdata hashtag.

There is a fantastic interactive display that pairs the city’s zoning data with Google Maps software to offer insight on the way a given neighborhood developed. Locals are able to enter their address and the zoning map pops up swiftly, displaying the zoning for the parcel and its immediate neighbors, along with the boundaries of adjacent zoning districts.

The Chicago Model itself is enhanced for the exhibition with a lighting installation that uses color and animation to visualize various data sets. (DCBolt Productions, Katelynn Pfeil, Luci Creative, and TruthLabs contributed to the exhibition design.) Several touch-screens allow visitors to interact with 3D models of various buildings.

Perhaps the best vantage point in the exhibition is from a raised platform overlooking the model. Looking west across the model’s downtown, a new backdrop has been erected that is larger than the model itself. It displays every individual building in the entire city and is color-coded to show the era in which it was developed: yellow for the oldest; blue for 1900-1945; orange for 1946-1979; and red from 1980-2014. It is the most striking part of the exhibit and allows visitors to visualize the city’s waves of construction and where more recent development has driven demolition and reconstruction.

The exhibition also puts big data in context: the ownership of the data and the patterns it reveals has caused many to raise privacy concerns. Chicago is poised to roll out an integrated system of sensors that will interact with smart phones and the environment to create whole new sets of data that, on the one hand, can be used to help the city determine where infrastructure improvements are needed but, on the other, would capture potentially sensitive information. The project—called “Array of Things”—is a partnership between the city, the University of Chicago, and Argonne National Laboratory. It may qualify as the first time any city has created such permanent digital infrastructure across an urban landscape.

Data collected through the project will be open to the public for use by individuals, governments, and businesses. The system will be rolled out this year, but for those seeking perspective on the data, its dangers, and its possibilities, City of Big Data is an excellent place to start.

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