Designing with Data

Making Cities Smarter with Big Data Infrastructure 

A collaboration between Stamen Design and the V&A, Big Glass Microphone uses vibrations in a 5km-long underground fibre optic cable to visualise and map the micro-vibrations caused by vehicles and machinery on the surface. Callum Tyndall explores how repurposing infrastructure to provide data could transform city design

Big Glass Microphone, a project that from May will be displayed as part of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s The Future Starts Here exhibition, is an intriguing look at the extraction of data from cities. By repurposing an underground fibre optic cable in Stanford, the project shows how existing infrastructure in cities can be repurposed to reveal unintended information.

Referred to by Eric Rodenbeck, founder of Stamen Design, as “incidental infrastructure”, the repurposing of existing elements of city infrastructure shows how much unused information is probably present across cities, and opens a range of possibilities for how such data could be put to good use.

By looking at the intersection between visible infrastructure (eg roads) and invisible infrastructure (eg radio waves), Big Glass Microphone is able to show how different events impact the cable, transforming it into an incidental listening device.

While initially interesting from a merely artistic point of view, and the general curiosity element of the project’s visualisations, it also reveals how much potential data is going unused in cities, and the possibilities of using that data to then improve upon the design of urban infrastructure.

Big Glass Microphone: Vibrational visualisations in a connected city

Perhaps the principal usage of the Big Glass Microphone’s data is in traffic visualisation and management, allowing city planners to see where and when hotspots occur and take steps to reduce them. It’s not just cars, though: one of the highlighted clips from the project shows movement likely to be a pedestrian or a bicycle.

As with vehicles, being able to see the density of foot (or bike) traffic on a given path at any selected time of day could allow for the optimisation of that path to suit said traffic. For example, if you saw that there was relatively little foot traffic but consistent bike usage, you may design the path to have a prioritised bike lane.

In addition, the project serves to highlight the way in which design will benefit from cities becoming ever smarter and more connected. In regards to cabling alone, the scope of a project such as Big Glass Microphone could conceivably expand dramatically, as the commonality of fibre optic internet increases and cities begin to make use of smart lighting.

The project serves to highlight the way in which design will benefit from cities becoming ever smarter and more connected

Without even having to dramatically alter any existing plans, it is possible that the next few years could see a city like London connected to the point where a Big Glass Microphone-style project could encompass, if not the entire city, certainly the majority of certain areas.

If so, the data would be there to produce a visual map of just how the city moves.

“Big Glass Microphone is intended to evoke a sense of wonder about the kinds of detections and interactions that are increasingly common in our ubiquitously networked society,” Rodenbeck posits.

 “If a fibre optic cable buried in the ground can tell that you’re walking by, what can the telephone wires over your head tell? What kinds of artistic, urban, commercial, governmental possibilities await as more and more cable is laid to power, say, smart street lights?”

A city built on data: Building smart cities and adapting to big data

The use of data to better understand cities is nothing new. Back in 2006, The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Realtime Rome project made use of Telecom Italia’s infrastructure to create realtime visualisations of the relation between city events, mobile phone use and people’s movements. And in a business use, GPS companies such as TomTom have been making use of anonymous locational data to provide live information on traffic congestion to their customers for years. 

What is notable is not necessarily the newness of the prospect, but rather the acceleration.

As cities become naturally more connected, the possibility of making use of the data generated by those connections naturally increases in concert, and thus allows more to be done with that data. The passage of pedestrians and vehicles is perhaps the most obvious use case, with a fairly wide variety of options available for tracking that passage, whether it be vibrations on cables or GPS data, but even with that data alone, there are a variety of uses.

As stated in the research article Big Data Analytics Embedded Smart City Architecture for Performance Enhancement through Real-Time Data Processing and Decision-Making, by Bhagya Nathali Silva, Murad Khan and Kijun Han (all of Kyungpook National University, Republic of Korea):

The realisation of the smart city is still emerging

 “The realisation of the smart city is still emerging, since the transformation of the conventional city operations requires novelty, networking, and processing ability of voluminous data. Therefore, the researchers and industrial experts are keen on shaping baseline architecture for a realistic smart city.”

While shifting a city to be based on these new sources of data undoubtedly has its complications, it seems not unlikely that major cities will gradually adjust to prioritise designs based off data such as that provided by Big Glass Microphone.

New cities, or at least areas of them, could even be built from the ground-up using big data models. In multiple counties, governments are already looking to increase the ‘smartness’ of their cities. It is possible that they may now do so with the assistance of “incidental infrastructure”.

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