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Flowing City, by Margarida Fonseca

Data as way to better understand the urban environment and its dynamics

March 13, 2013

[This is a guest post by Margarida Fonseca*, explaining the story behind the Flowing City project]


The city shaped by technology appears to us as a brand new topic mostly due to the hype around smart cities and intelligent cities more or less broadcasted by institutions like MIT[1], or the Fraunhofer Institute[2] or for instance by IBM’s vision of what a Smart City looks like[3].

The potentials and promises of having every single object in the city connected to the grid and to each other creates great expectations among Information and Communication Technologies companies (ICTs) who see themselves as the best partner to provide Municipalities with applications that measure, control and visualize everything that can be traced in the city.

The concept of Smart cities seemed to me as the technological and tangible possibility of the several visions that media authors have been publishing since the 90s.

When I was looking for my thesis research topic on information visualization, I thought about all the data/information visualization projects I had seen on blogs such as infosthetics [4]; I particularly wondered if there was a significant number of projects visualizing data of /from cities.

Data is a way to better understand the urban environment and its dynamics, a way to understand how we as citizens relate with our urban contexts. In this sense, data analysis linked with data visualization can empower a city with “smartness” and “intelligence” helping to identify patterns and relationships, enabling citizens with tools that support better decision making, discovery, exploration and explanation of the city.

Flowing City

Flowing City is a web catalogue of data/information visualization projects about these cities shaped by technology, it is a collection of projects I gathered and classified with the purpose of serving as case studies for my thesis about the visualization of the cities built of data.

The name itself – Flowing City – was mainly inspired by Castells’ idea about the social practices that dominate and shape the network society: the space of flows – “flows are the expression of the processes dominating our economic, political, and symbolic life”.  Also, as time went by and my collection of case studies grew I became more and more aware that what most of the data/information visualization projects were about… was flows! Flows showing the dynamics of the whole city functioning, through the traces of movement we leave from GPS enabled devices and RFID transport cards, flows left by the constant stream of people and goods passing by Singapore’s trans-shipment container port: new maps of urban dynamics and real-time flows of people and patterns forming in the city from the interpretation of mobile phone activity.

As you can see in Gary Hustwit’s documentary “Urbanized”: “Cities today have been doing the same thing that they’ve done for three four five thousand years. They have been the place where the flows of people, the flows of money, and the flows of goods have coalesced.”

When I started this project, I was very curious to find out all sorts of things:

Which themes did city built of data data/information visualization projects prefer to observe, what kind of data personality did they focus on: quantitative analysis (intensity-data-cities) or on qualitative analysis of a city (identities-data-cities)?

Regarding data, where did the information visualization projects’ data come from? How important was the role data played in the city shaped by technology; which promises and threats did these projects disclose? Is the access to data open or closed? What about data consciousness: were these projects made with data actively shared about a city, a voluntarily contribute from the user or from a community to that specific data/information visualization project (active-data-city)? Or were these projects made with data that was passively or involuntarily collected? (passive-data-city)? What about real-time readiness?

In order to find out answers for these and other questions, I built a huge taxonomy under which I organized each and every one of the case studies (if you are still reading this far you probably want to take a peek at my thesis[5]) and this is how Flowing City came to life.

It was very exciting to find out that there was a huge diversity of themes and of technological enablers.

Despite this diversity, one of the things I found out was – and I should be careful while drawing definitive conclusions from the research I did – that the focus of the majority of the data/information visualization projects focused on technology per see or on analyzing it. On the other hand, some particular data/information projects, reminded us that technology must be at use of citizens and not the other way around, citizens should be part of the city’s collective upgrading and problem-solving.

To me, the data/information visualization projects which focus on a city’s collective upgrading and problem-solving, are the most interesting kind of projects and I leave you with some of the case studies I found more interesting.


The tidy street project

A Project that was built having the citizen’s direct engagement in mind, a striking, simple and anonymous representation and feedback system about the evolution of domestic energy consumption in tidy street households in Brighton, UK.

The tidy street project, infographics in the streets
(image: The tidy street project | Change Project | Via CollabCubed)



CitySourced provides a free, simple, and intuitive platform empowering residents to identify civic issues and report them to city hall for quick resolution; an opportunity for government to use technology to save time and money plus improve accountability to those they govern; and a positive, collaborative platform for real action.

Partial screen capture of the website CitySourced
(image: CitySourced)



*Margarida Fonseca is a Project Manager at PT Sistemas de Informação, in Portugal. She attended an Information visualization Master program at the University of Amsterdam (UVA), and the Flowing City project was her final thesis.

Written by Tiago Veloso

Tiago Veloso is the founder and editor of Visualoop and Visualoop Brasil . He is Portuguese, currently based in Bonito, Brazil.