Habitat III: Data visualisation for a more sustainable future

Philip Barker
Kettering 52° 23' 55.752" N, -0° 43' 32.988" E

Habitat III, the United Nation’s conference for sustainable urban development, kicks off in Quito, Ecuador, this weekend. Our friends at UCLab have teamed up with the International Council for Science and Future Earth to show off three city models. They combine physical model making with HERE-based data visualisation to demonstrate city dynamics and highlight comparisons between different locations.

The stage for the models couldn’t be larger, with the UN’s Habitat conference only taking place once every two decades.

Dr Marian Dörk, who heads up the Urban Complexity Lab (UCLab) project for the University of Applied Sciences at Potsdam, explains that Habitat plays a significant part on a global level with regards to policy making and urban planning for cities around the world.

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“The main narrative at Habitat III is that we need a sustainable urban future as we move towards an urbanizing planet.”

With a shared interest in data visualisations, the partnership between UCLab, International Council for Science (ICSU) and Future Earth was a natural one, and Owen Gaffney from Future Earth explains:

“Future Earth and ICSU work very closely together on international policy, and we’ve also been working with climate negotiators for many decades. We’re very interested in data visualisations and their role in communicating and engaging with audiences outside of the scientific community, which led to developing some projects with UCLab.”

“When Habitat came along it was a match made in heaven, with 45,000 urban experts coming to Quito, Ecuador, offering the chance to work with some of the best data visualisation groups to create content and ideas.”

What are the city models all about?

The city models are a juxtaposition of actual, physical models and visualisations that are projected from above to highlight different data. Marian explains:

“The idea was actually inspired by a physical city model created by HERE to showcase location intelligence and to illustrate the different dimensions of a city and the different features of a HERE map. It was a really intriguing exhibition piece, and it was a starting point for us.”

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“We’re using HERE transit and traffic data for the visualisations at Habitat, and we have traffic pattern data that shows how congestion varies over a day on average and also over the week. We’re using that data to compare three cities – Bogotá, Singapore and Cape Town – and we’re basically showing the ebb and flow of traffic over the weeks.”

“It’s one of these projects that really requires a diverse group of people coming at it from different angles; from data analysis, to physical prototyping and visualization coding. Our project team in Potsdam consisted of visualization researchers, an interaction designer and a geoscientist.”

Marian explains that the three city models also incorporate data for transit lines, with information taken from the HERE API, and POI data for libraries and museums. It means the models can highlight different aspects of the cities, including how cultural and educational institutions are distributed across the city.

The models themselves are laser cut, highlighting areas that contain buildings or waterways, with data visualisations added in the form of projections. “We’re making it dynamic by shining lights to represent the traffic, transit, air pollution, institutions, population density and so on,” adds Marian.

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What difference do data visualisations make?

“I think that at a visceral, superficial level, visualisations are often intriguing,” says Marian.

“It’s a conversation starter, but beyond that, we really believe that it can inform decision making, help form strategies for cities and organisations, and, by using historic data, shed light both on how the past has developed and make projections for the future.”

Marian also explains that, on an institutional level, municipalities and businesses can use data visualisation to better understand infrastructure: “It can also help them to rethink where they're investing and how they are moving about.”

The idea that data visualisations can help to affect behaviours is one that Owen is quick to agree with, and he adds:

“Information flows are critical for shifting behavior – for example, people are using Fitbits and other fitness equipment to monitor their fitness regime in real time, and that works as a motivator. We can use innovative data visualisation techniques to understand our lifestyles and the cities we’re living in, as well as motivating us to move to more sustainable lifestyles through data analytics and data visualisation.”

“We’ve created a very powerful knowledge platform on urban solutions and urban understanding. I’ve not seen anything quite like it before that brings together all of this knowledge.”

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The city models are just part of what UCLab, ICSU and Future Earth will be showing off at Habitat III this month, with both Marian and Owen keen to highlight a packed calendar of workshops, panel discussions and presentations on sustainability, science and visualisations, all fitting in perfectly with Habitat III’s vision of a more sustainable future.

Interested in keeping up with the latest from the conference? Habitat III will be taking place from 17-20 October, with activities starting this weekend. If you’re not in Quito, you can follow the team’s activities through their newsletter and on social media: Twitter & Facebook.

Topics: Data visualization, Features, Editor's picks, Powered by HERE, Smart cities

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