LSE Urban Data conference – a review

Adam Greenfield’s LSE symposium ‘Urban data: From fetish object to social object’ set out, as Greenfield stated, to “problematise the area of urban data”. An aim it easily achieved: by the end of the day I collected way more questions than answers. It turns out that once you stop fetishising data and start using it as a social object what you get are keen insights into the functioning of local politics.

Listening to all the stories told I felt most of them went through a four step process:

1. Collection of data
Starting with an existing dataset might sound easier than collecting it yourself, but it comes with the challenge that all data is inherently political. Someone, somewhere has to chose what to measure and what to ignore. Therefore, to inherit a dataset means to inherit the constraints and politics under which it was produced. When you start from scratch at least you have some control of what you gather and with what purpose.


  • Using an available research budget to collecting data in Tottenham to previous unemployed people provided them with meaningful work for a period of six months.
  • Going into the neighbourhoods and collecting data for an allotment project allowed attendees to re-see their own environment and find new possibilities that they weren’t aware off.


  • What data to collect is very much a political question. Councils might not be too keen on paying for data collection when gathered facts can easily be used against them.
  • Corrupt people in powerful positions very much like to stay in the shadows.
  • To use data as a homogeneous term vastly oversimplifies what is needed to gain a clear understanding and actionable social objects. The fidelity of data in Leeds made it possible for children growing up in poverty to go undiscovered because the wealthier areas surrounding them averaged out their low scores.

2. Turning data into a social object
Although there is more and more data available and strategies can be found to collect it when it’s absent, the creation of maps that function as a social object for political change still remains in the domain of experts. Nevertheless there were some hopeful stories of community workshops where experts shared their knowledge with local community members.


  • Turning data into social objects is very much a social process that allows people to think and share what they want the maps to communicate and therefore allows all involved to gain a better understanding of the challenges at hand.


  • Map making is not a skill that can be easily learned.
  • Most projects can’t be sustained without the constant need for outside experts.

3. Data being used as social object
This is the step that is often skipped with popular online infographics and data visualisations. How to use a map as a tool for change. In almost all the stories people stated: “And then we printed large versions of the maps, took them back to the communities, placed them on tables and used them to facilitate discussion about what to do next.”


  • The ability of low-cost, high-impact map-making allows groups to explain their problems and aims with a power that stories, spreadsheets or photos on their own lack.
  • Getting local politicians involved early (such as in India) allows them to build up a portfolio of before and after stories.
  • Use well-known people, brands and projects as a way to connect people with the data and maps. It could be via well-known media outlets such as in Turkey, or via vegetables such as in West Midlands but data needs to come out of the abstract and into the tangible to spark a discussion.


  • Reading of maps is still a skill that needs to be taught.
  • It’s hard to visualise the way data changes over time and space.

4. Continuation of the availability of data
One of the biggest challenges is how a one-off data collection can be turned into an ongoing measurement. Councils can see up-to-date data as an easy way be held accountable for the failure to deliver on promises. Research grants often don’t last longer than a few years, and the enthusiasm of volunteers often grows tired after a while. Can there be, as one of the attendees mentioned, a body that provides neutral data that both government and activists can use to support their cases?


  • Data only being available for a limited time doesn’t have to be a problem. In an Indian slum, a map of the area’s problems was mainly used to anchor the discussion in the beginning after which it moved on to more pressing issues.
  • In a city like Montreal where there are many opposing interests, the continuous collecting of data can be used to show everyone involved that the processes are fair to all parties.


  • Data visualised to show change over time can be an incredibly powerful tool. However, this requires a steady stream of data collection over a longer period.
  • Long term data collection can be in conflict with the way research and councils are funded.
  • Success stories of data collection to moving from prototype to infrastructure are few and far between.


Although all speakers shared great stories two of them stood out for me:

Paula Z. Segal – 596 Acres
Paula told the story of 596 acres of unused city owned land in New York. This land acquired by the city over a period of decades was only available as a spreadsheet but a group of volunteers created a custom build map (code available on GitHub) and made it accessible to a wider audience. When they were done it clearly showed that “these areas were not evenly spread over NY but clustered in certain areas, observed as spreadsheet this was almost impossible to see.” With their aim to connect people to use the land together, their website grew into a digital bulletin board. Having digital data and being online is, however, not enough.
A note on a plot
A striking example of the physicality of the project was their work to place signs on many individual lots with the government’s system name and the phone number to reach the person responsible at the borough. Once you can connect the local person in the borough with the right person at the borough’s office you can start making things happen.

*Header photo is also from the project

Yaşar Adnan Adanalı – Networks of dispossession
Yaşar told the story of how the occupation of Tahrir square inspired him and his fellow creators of Mülksüzleştirme to start mapping the power structures surrounding Turkey’s real-estate market. He stated: “urban transformation creates winners and losers and is not a zero-sum game. And always the losers are those that were already worse off.” When they looked at the transformation of Istanbul’s inner city it felt like an invisible hand kept pushing projects to take place no matter how much protest there was.

“We started with Google docs and mapped the companies, government, budget and the legal framework that allows this to happen – we linked them to existing sources, so that people couldn’t claim we were making it up.”

Well-known projects and media companies allowed people a way in to start exploring the data visualisations on their website and enabled them to uncover the invisible hands that had been pushing the projects. The visualisation of this abstract data gave them a new power and allowed them to present a new discourse. And coincidence or not, but not long after the website went online Turkey was shocked by a major corruption scandal surrounding large building projects.

Thanks to Adam Greenfield, LSE , the speakers and attendees for creating such an interesting day.

Other posts I wrote on urban Interaction design that might be of interest :
8 Ideas for Smart Cities
UrbanIxD: The continuous workshop of future making

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