Urban Observatory Visualizes, Compares Cities Through Data-Based Lens

by   |   July 9, 2013 8:23 am   |   0 Comments

A view of the Urban Observatory on display at the Esri International User Conference in San  Diego. Esri photo.

A view of the Urban Observatory on display at the Esri International User Conference in San Diego. Esri photo.

SAN DIEGO—The French capital is famous as the City of Light, and Ernest Hemingway remembered it fondly as a moveable feast. But look at the data, and what stands out about Paris is the distribution of open spaces it enjoys compared to Los Angeles and Mumbai.

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This characteristic comes across in the Urban Observatory, a mapping exhibit that uses a series of juxtaposed data visualizations to compare and contrast population demographics, land use, traffic patterns and other elements from 16 cities around the world. The exhibit, which debuted at the Esri International User Conference here, is a collaboration involving Esri founder Jack Dangermond, Richard Saul Wurman, known for founding the TED Talks series, and Jon Kamen, the founder of @radical.media, a media, design and technology firm. A version showing the map displays is also available online.

The idea is to use maps as “a common language” that transcends borders at a time when urban areas now hold 51 percent of the world’s population and are growing.

What is notable about the presentation—and what business analysts and data visualization creators may glean from it—is the spare design. While there are colorful images symbolizing the cities (tulips in Rotterdam, the Manhattan skyline) and aerial photography from each one, the maps themselves are displaying one dataset at a time. Most emphasize one color. These choices focus the viewer’s attention on the act of comparing one quality about one city—youth population, or commercially zoned sectors—to the same thing in other urban areas.

Another key decision, said Hugh Keegan, manager of the Esri Applications Prototype Lab, was to make sure the maps of different cities display at the same scale. “If you compare things, compare the same things and use the same measures,” he said. Online, if a user adjusts the view of one city, the application adjusts the view of two other city maps on display.

A grid of 30 video displays, each 70 inches, has a top row of colorful images from each of 10 cities, with the second and third rows showing maps of the cities beneath them. The 16 cities are listed in alphabetical order and rotate through as maps display the latest available traffic data, or housing density. Each trait appears for four minutes and 40 seconds before it changes.

“We’re trying to take complex thoughts, imagery, so that people will look at Los Angeles, or Milan, and see these things are fundamentally different. It gives them a starting point, a key for understanding,” said Aaron Cassidy Bishop, a user experience and interface designer at Esri who worked on the project. The design plays down colors “to make the data the star here,” without actually using the word data anywhere in the exhibit.

A view of the Urban Observatory website comparing open space in Paris, Los Angeles and Mumbai.

A view of the Urban Observatory website comparing open space in Paris, Los Angeles and Mumbai.

James Hitchcock, executive creative director at Esri, said he noticed that people viewing the exhibit at the San Diego event stay for three cycles. This a test run of the exhibit, he said, and plans call for it to be shown in other locations and augmented with data from other cities. Esri, which is hosting the data and generating the maps, has made an appeal for other cities to join the project. The goal is to create more than one exhibit each displaying a 360-degree circle of maps, with many cities cycling through.

A Gallery of Maps
The Urban Observatory was a special exhibit in a large gallery of maps, including many submitted for a competition, displayed by government agencies from around the world, as well as private enterprises, nonprofit organizations and students.

The maps ranged from land use analysis, such as “An Evaluation of Six Groundwater-Quality Parameters Collected Under New Jersey’s Private Well Testing Act,” to “Educational Centers in Indian Country” of the U.S., to a “Global Fistula Map” by the organization Direct Relief showing surgical facilities for Africa and the Indian subcontinent.

A small crowd gathered around a map showing oil and gas leases and pipelines off the coast of Louisiana. The poster, by Stephen Visconti of Enterprise Products, was about four feet tall and nine feet wide and its simple name—“Central Gulf of Mexico Facilities and Lease Map”—belied its complexity.  Looking at the series of leases identified off the coast, a viewer could see the array of exploration in the Gulf, and how these plot points rested on various topographical features of the ocean. What stood out were the location of the lease claims and whether they were close to or as was the case for many, far away from existing pipelines. For an oil or gas company, those points highlight needed important risk and cost calculations.

Michael Goldberg is editor of Data Informed. Reach him at Michael.Goldberg@wispubs.com.

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