Big Data & Urban Futures


The 8th issue of the CUDC’s journal Urban Infill features a collection of articles about big data and smart cities including American City 2.5 by Anna Acklin and Mark Linder. Their article explores the application of geographic information system (GIS) software as a tool of urban design. Here’s an excerpt:

The county-wide maps of American City 2.5 are a revision and expansion of a commission to study Onondaga Creek in Syracuse, New York, as a potential locus of public-private investment. American City 2.5 extends that study to an analysis and modeling of spatial data across the Onondaga County to distinguish latent communities, institutional networks, and public infrastructures through three general maps that capture the county’s economic, cultural, and hydrologic character. Exercising a variety of investigated techniques within the software, the project infuses census data into the map’s various layers, inviting a unique graphical representation of these newly designed or more informed components, territories, infrastructures, and ecologies that feed the site.


Consider the land parcel. In its most basic sense, the parcel may be understood as boundary lines demarcating plots of land at the ownership scale. In efforts to exhibit the economic character of plot ownership and neighborhoods across the county, the parcels are formally manipulated through GIS to varying degrees of distortion based on the population of college students, and are then color-coded on a gradient based on the proportion of the population without high school diplomas. The web-like feature created by this process reflects the emergence of a more bottom-up, or organic, understanding of the economic culture county-wide through the scale of the parcel.

Similar operations were employed across the three base maps to manipulate features in accordance with census information to reveal the economic, cultural, and hydrologic latencies throughout Onondaga County. In pushing the graphic capacities of the software, the layers are accentuated and expressive of the now merged features and transformed census data, subverting the typical hierarchical understanding of mapped elements.


The hydrology and geographical features of Onondaga County, New York

While the images themselves are abstract, it is this very attribute that welcomes interpretation without discrimination and creative speculation. The image’s ability to re-present and inspire design proposals remains rooted in specificity, but can simultaneously confirm, accentuate, and/or elaborate intuitions in one’s understanding of a city. As an urban design tool, this capability creates an alternative understanding of site analysis and creates ranges of new potential within proposed solutions that can be more particular as they respond to a more informed site.

To read the complete article plus others on the themes of big data, development, and adaptation, you can pick up a copy of Urban Infill No. 8 at the CUDC for $10 or order it online.

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And it you’re interested in big data and GIS as an urban design and community development tool, please join us for a lecture by Sarah Williams on MIT’s Civic Data Design Lab on March 6, 2020 at 5:30 pm. Sarah will share some of the Lab’s work and discuss how big data can be used to generate policy change. Drinks and snacks at 5:30pm; Sarah’s talk begins at 6pm.

Event is free and open to the public but registration is appreciated.



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