Data visualization helps us untangle the complexity of cities

28th Feb 2017
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Public and private organizations across multiple industries worldwide have a vision to create smart cities. To keep up with the pace at which cities are growing and evolving and to continue to make them smarter, we need new ways of visualizing and understanding them.

The Urban Complexity Lab (UCLab) at the University of Applied Sciences Potsdam in Germany is a unique research space at the intersection of information visualization and urban transformation, with the goal of untangling urban complexity through visualization.

Jointly directed by Boris Müller, professor for interaction design, and Marian Dörk, research professor for information visualization, UCLab hosts research projects related to the visualization of smart cities and big data, or what they refer to as “the digital skin of cities”. A melting pot of interface design, computing and humanities researchers and students, it’s an inspiring place to be.

HERE, a supporter of UCLab, joined their Smart City Research Day to discover the innovative ways in which they’re interactively visualizing and making sense of complex data, and creating beautiful portraits of cities in the process.

Capturing the rhythm of a city

Have you ever wanted to know how far you can travel from a certain location with a certain amount of time? Isoscope (by Flavio Gortana, Sebastian Kaim and Martin von Lupin) is an interactive tool that creates visuals of areas you can reach from a selected location within a chosen time, using different modes of transport.

Twenty-four layered organic shapes, each representing one hour of the day, map the “boundaries of reachability”, taking into account changes in traffic throughout the day. By harnessing information such as traffic infrastructure and natural boundaries, the tool allows you to explore the scope of our urban mobility and compare how far you can go with different modes of transport within and among cities all over the world.

“Urban mobility is an essential part of our everyday lives”, explains Boris. “I’m intrigued by situations in which our mobility is compromised – in traffic jams or during challenging driving conditions, for example. Isoscope tells us how these situations impact our journeys and which modes of transport are most affected.

“I like to think that if traffic is the pulse of a city, Isoscope captures the rhythm of a city with its daily ups and downs.”

Visualizing urban bike mobility

Cities all over the world are recognizing the numerous benefits of cycling and installing bike sharing systems for locals and tourists alike. Designed as an installation for a public exhibition, cf. city flows (by Till Nagel and Christopher Pietsch) visualizes the movements carried out with bike sharing systems in three major cities: London, Berlin and New York. Three side-by-side screens, each displaying the same time of day and using the same scale, allow the viewer to observe and compare the extent and dynamics of urban bike mobility in each city, and the similarities and differences between each system.

By tracing bike ride trajectories, the installation accentuates the striking contrast between the older, irregularly structured cities of London and Berlin and the grid-like New York. Another viewing mode shows characteristic “fingerprints” of selected bike stations and tempo-spatial mobility patterns, such as commuters arriving at and leaving a business district during rush-hour.

“Geo-visualizations help us make sense of the invisible layers in our environment”, explains Marian. “By comparing cities, people can become better informed and imagine what their own bike sharing system could look like. Citizens want to be a part of making their own city smarter and more sustainable, and this tool helps them to do that.”

Viewing novels from a new perspective

While they’re reading, people imagine what the locations within the text look like, and potentially even form a mental map of the various locations in their head. Now imagine if you could view the novel in a completely new way, with location at the heart of it. Novel City Maps (by Jan-Erik Stange) visualizes the locations within a novel and their relation to the story in the form of a “poetic map”.

Literary experts like the tool, as the visualizations identify patterns of relationships between literary spaces and geographic locations. As each novel produces its own distinct map, the importance of the locations and their connection to the story becomes visible, and their influence determined by the author, story, time and other factors can be analyzed.

But it’s not just for experts. “The tool helps interested readers familiar with a novel view it from a new perspective and engage with it more deeply, as they’re forced to explore it through its locations”, explains Boris. “And I hope it will convince those unfamiliar with a book to read it if they have a personal connection to or interest in a particular location or spatial pattern.”

Having barely scraped the surface of the work UCLab is doing, HERE looks forward to discovering what else they have in store.