Designing Data: Information's Artistic Side

Designing Data: Information's Artistic Side

By Tim Newcomb
Data defines the way we build and the way we design our cities and structures—at least if we want to build smart, says Roger Wood, founder of San Francisco-based Art+Data Institute. Wood, in conjunction with Ron Vinson, debut for Dwell the institute’s first-ever top-10 list of government and non-profit entities that best use data to drive design, showing how analyzing movements—whether of a city or an individual—can create the most interactive meshing of city or structure to our lives.

The list highlights Singapore and Copenhagen for seamlessly leveraging data about citizen use into a more elegant city; the Houston Ballet, High Museum in Atlanta, and New York City Opera for creating smarter, more intuitive public spaces based on analytics; Qatar and the Singapore Airport for showing how technology can define architecture; and three other entities that have opened up a once-locked world of data to build everything from zoo habitats to zoning codes that no longer rely on "guesswork," as Wood says.

The sheer amount of user information available about the government helps drive everything from e-commerce to the design of bicycle lanes in Copenhagen.

"All institutions that dwell in the area of the way we live are being marked by the use of software to make decisions previously done primarily by instinct," Wood says. "We see dramatic increases in the quality of life and the future of cities and the way we organize ourselves."

The inclusion of Singapore and Denmark on the inaugural list shows the "breathtaking leaps in the fluidity and elegance of the interaction" between what has long been tradition-bound data and the design of our cities. In Singapore, calculations not only determined the most precise calculation Wood has ever seen for the optimal amount of green space needed within the city-state, but where exactly to construct that space. "Being informed by data has made Singapore less of a city with parks in it and more so a garden with a city inside of it," Wood says, noting that the greenspace was placed where data said people would actually go, not where designers thought they should go. The Singapore Airport, also on the list, mimics that definition, fusing art and technology to create a new style of airport experience.

Foot-traffic statistics drove architectural interaction between students, staff and administration within the Houston Ballet's new facility.

In Copenhagen, the city has exposed oceans of data to the public to help define the way people interact with each other in the physical world. For a concrete example, look at the city’s world-leading bicycle lanes. Copenhagen measured the flow of automotive traffic versus bicycle and pedestrian traffic and that information dictated where the safest, most effective placements of bicycle lanes were. "The data told them this," Wood says. "It was not guesswork, it was not one person’s whimsical thoughts. Data drove the decision."

Whether the ballet in Houston, the opera in New York City, World Cup organizers in Qatar, or the High Museum in Atlanta, architects use the growing data sets on user preferences and actual performance to define everything from building materials to design aesthetics. "The ballet did not guess where people would go," Wood says. "They actually used meters, driven by software, to manage the traffic. They designed the facility to accommodate what people were naturally doing, but they couldn’t know that if they didn’t measure and monitor."

Art and data infuse at every step to create a beautiful, but connected airport of the future in Singapore.

The High Museum is no different, as a mobile app allows user interaction. The data coming to the museum organizers allows them to monitor the popularity of not only exhibits, but specific pieces of an exhibit, whether a visual or audio component, driving new placements and narratives and building "living, breathing artificial intelligence exhibitions" that only software could inform.

Wood sees a greater exposure of raw data—as we have witnessed in Copenhagen and Chicago—the collection of even more data and the eventual "marriage" of that data with the individual, whether through smartphones, tablets or similar devices (he notes the Nike+ FuelBand has that potential) to allow citizens to talk directly to a city database as the next step. Once that connection gets established, the possible uses diversify, allowing citizens everything from instant answers as to whether their favorite transit hub is crowded to data on how many children live in a specific section of the city while the debating the zoning of a new hospital or school, for example "This is not Jules Verne science fiction," Wood says. "This is well within our grasp today."


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