Data visualization is the rage right now, as city managers release ever more information through open source APIs and creative programmers tease out trends in colorful maps and images, beautifully depicting statistics that would otherwise be stuck in a dense spreadsheet only an actuary could love. Media foundations have been busy giving money to pioneering shops like Stamen, while those in the burgeoning field eagerly await the release of an ocean of new information in the 2010 Census.
Even before the Census results are available, however, creative minds like Oakland resident Eric Fischer have been busy manipulating available data sets to offer insight into the traditional maps of our cities.
Fischer, a computer programmer known to wonks and city buffs for his wonderful Flickr catalog of transportation and development master plans that died on a dusty shelf, has used demographic data to show racial integration in major U.S. cities, to tremendous effect. The maps are marvels, showing how we stereotype portions of the cities we know by racial make-up and how dramatically redevelopment and racialized zoning rules from earlier eras have stratified neighborhoods into singular racial enclaves.
John Rogers’ film looks at the city we deny and the future city that awaits us. Leading London writers and cultural commentators Will Self, Iain Sinclair and Russell Brand explore the importance of the liminal spaces at the city’s fringe, its Edgelands, through the work of enigmatic and downright eccentric writer and researcher Nick Papadimitriou - a man whose life is dedicated to exploring and archiving areas beyond the permitted territories of the high street, the retail park, the suburban walkways.
The ideas of psychogeography and Nick’s own deep topography are also explored.
A more traditional historian setting out to write about railroads in America would spend years immersed in archives, assimilating data, but principally looking for the anecdotes, characters, and grand narratives that make the story tellable. There will always be a place for such history. But White’s approach uses novel methods to open up new ways of telling history. White and his assistants went to the same sources as a traditional historian would have—letters, freight tables, books, newspapers, accident reports, ledgers, and so on. Only, when something seemed too complex, he didn’t cast it aside. He entered it into a database, and georeferenced it with ArcGIS, geographic information system software.
“We use Geographic Information Systems (GIS), spatial analysis, and visualization graphical representation algorithms to visually manipulate maps and graphs,” the team reports on its site. And as a result, the team could ask questions that wouldn’t be possible with analog historical tools: “Which stretches of rail were the most dangerous? Was one railroad profession more at risk of death or injury than another? How did the railroads affect settlement in the counties immediately adjacent to the railroads? What happens to these populations over time as more transportation and irrigation options became available?”