Data versus the ‘Discardscape’

With the ever-pervasive visualisation of data and real-time tracking potential of urban informatics, the ability to be completely immersed in the screen becomes increasingly distracting if not necessarily helpful with regard our concerns about the contemporary built environment. Obviously in silico is not the same as in concreto. So let us look toward something very real – Detroit. What emerges as particularly important about Detroit as we move through the clutter of ruin porn imagery and much-publicised crime and deprivation statistics is that it is at once both specific (happening right now, as one of the leading-edges in advanced capitalist conditions) but also increasingly everywhere (representative of many other places in the US and Europe). As Jerry Herron accurately defined the situation, “Detroit may be emptied out, then, but it is hardly over, nor will it be anytime soon, precisely because of the questions that this city/not raises.”[1] As tempting as it may be to consider such a place to be relegated to the past if not entirely redundant, many of us still live in these situations so we need to address this. Indeed, it is worth reiterating Rebecca Solnit’s point here regarding the very practical reason Detroit will evolve through sheer necessity since it is “where change is most urgent and therefore most viable.”[2] If we start to pursue this idea further then perhaps the most helpful way of considering Detroit is as a series of situations borne of relationships rather than permanent fixtures. This of course holds for other urban contexts but seems especially pertinent to this one. As such, Rice’s recent description may be brought to bear, “To call Detroit a network is to call it an account, not a fixed representation of space. It is to simultaneously call it the physical locale we have always known to be Detroit, but it is also to call this space something else.”[3] This points toward the durative nature of meaning making, which affords our perception of places to evolve through further encounters, experiences and events. The networked or, perhaps more usefully termed, relational aspect of a physical context is crucial to our understanding and interpretation of such situations. Whether evident as a coherent city form or fragmented ‘discardscape’ such as Detroit, the web of explicit and latent connections that constitutes the urban environment, supports Amin & Thrift’s notion of an expanded politics of representation.[4]

Carol Anne, Poltergeist, 1982

Carol Anne, Poltergeist, 1982

The failings of capitalism, and, in particular, its withdrawal, are omnipresent across Detroit. Despite this, the hope, perseverance and creative commitment of groups of its citizens remain defiant in developing counter strategies to affect positive change. Data Driven Detroit is one such initiative that provides a nonprofit, independent data centre to promote positive community change. As part of their remit the organization has produced the D3 Toolbox, envisioned to support communities with the data necessary for them to take action in their neighbourhoods.[5] The relatively nascent character of such enabling instruments means it is perhaps too early to ascertain the full uptake and impact of them, but their availability is undoubtedly a move in the right direction. Another salient example is the Ponyride project, which explores how the foreclosure crisis may be used to “provide cheap space for socially-conscious artists and entrepreneurs to work and share knowledge, resources and networks.”[6] In a similar vein, other organizations such as Detroit SOUP and Kiva Detroit are enabling citizens to actively contribute toward the distribution of grant funding and microloans respectively to facilitate communities to improve their neighbourhoods and district.[7] However, whilst all of these valuable incentives are using online presence to evolve and disseminate their structure and content, it may also be possible to develop a more explicit, adaptive and integrated way of coupling user-gathered data with urban transformation.

Neighbourhood Parcel Tool, Data Driven Detroit, 2012

Neighbourhood Parcel Tool, Data Driven Detroit, 2012

This aim may be the next logical step for community platforms such as, which uses HTML and database software to compose structured city spaces where citizens define places, stories, and events that shape a community.[8] This type of ‘hyperlocal’ content is considerably more situated in its character, offering appropriate filtering and collation of data to key issues and concerns that affect a neighbourhood. Indeed, the elements identified above, i.e. resources, data, networks and intelligence, are integral to the manner in which interfaces such as this produce data-driven mediations of personal interactions with places. It is these personal engagements with physical space that reflect the contingent, itinerant and embedded qualities of our relationship with the immediate context. Of course, this is not the only platform to provide highly localized content with other aggregated blogs and mapping websites available with which the experiences and concerns of citizens and their interactions are cumulative and integrative in nature.[9] It is therefore proposed that it may be across platforms such as these that the elusive preparatory framework of an “alternative to neo-traditional models of planning and urban design and their naïve revisionist strategies for the recuperation of the pre-industrial city,” may be found.[10] Through the accretion and evolution of projects and initiatives such as these it may be possible for Detroit to become the ‘syncopated urban landscape’ it is capable of becoming.[11]

Toxic Tour of Detroit, Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, 2011

Toxic Tour of Detroit, Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, 2011

[1] Herron, J. (2010) ‘Borderland/Borderama/Detroit,’ in: Wilkins, G. [ed.] Distributed Urbanism: Cities after Google Earth. Oxon: Routledge, pp. 63-86.

[2] Solnit, R. (2007) ‘Detroit Arcadia: Exploring the post-American landscape,’ Harper’s Magazine, July, pp. 65-73.

[3] Rice, J. (2012) Digital Detroit: Rhetoric and Space in the Age of the Network. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, p. 6.

[4] Amin, A. & Thrift, N. (2002) Cities: Reimagining the Urban. Cambridge: Polity.

[5] To explore the current tools provided see: <; [Accessed 1 October 2012]

[6] More information available at: <; [Accessed 4 October 2012]

[7] For further details on both of these worthwhile projects see: <; and <; [Accessed 4 October 2012]

[8] The ability to connect citizens with one another and interlink news, events and places is enabled through the streaming of hyperlocal content, providing a digital counterpart to the physical neighbourhood: <; [Accessed 1 October 2012]

[9] Platforms such as Google Maps and Wayfaring are empowering citizens and groups to develop specific content around political and environmental concerns, for example the Toxic Tour of Detroit map produced by Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice in 2011. Available: <; [Accessed 1 October 2012]

[10] Daskalakis, G., Waldheim, C. & Young, J. [eds] (2001) Stalking Detroit. Barcelona: Actar, p. 12.

[11] Pitera, D. (2010) Detroit: Syncopating an Urban Landscape. Available: < feature/detroit-syncopating-an-urban-landscape/14288/> [Accessed 4 October 2012]

the end of architecture?

Through its commoditization and acquiescence to the demands of the market, architecture has increasingly become marginalized, if not entirely circumvented, from its role as an aid to humanity and society. If, as both Fredric Jameson (1994) and, more recently, Mark Fisher (2009) have suggested, “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”[1][2], then we need to fundamentally rethink the means through which we may achieve effective, adaptive and contingent political mobilization to positively alter the urban landscape. The potentially transformative power of data, ceded to the masses, may provide the necessary impetus toward a substantial restructuring of the city, but only if its systems are capable of negotiating the attendant issues of governance, antitrust policy and security measures. It is these concerns that provided the foundation for the research paper, ‘The End of Architecture? Networked Communities, Urban Transformation and Post-Capitalist Landscapes’ presented by the authors at the recent Spaces and Flows: Third International Conference on Urban and ExtraUrban Studies held at Wayne State University, Detroit, 11-12 October 2012. The paper examined the notion that if we are to consider the future transformation of our cities, then the communities within them must be given priority as stakeholders. If we really are living in the end times of Žižek [3], we need to energetically and openly engage with the provision of a framework to evolve ‘intelligent terrain’ that is participatory and enabling. This idea was further unpacked in the context of Detroit, interrogating the data-driven toolkit currently available there in relation to its governance, communities and the (re)configuration of space [4].

the discarded city, Detroit, 9 October 2012. [photo by author]

[1]. Jameson, F. (1994) The Seeds of Time. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

[2]. Fisher, M. (2009) Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, Ropley: Zero Books.

[3]. Žižek, S. (2011) Living in the End Times, Revised Edition, London: Verso.


Cellular Urbanism – Data Mapping # 1

The use of maps in relation to cities and our experience of them is both a familiar one and historically extensive. Our engagement with an unknown city is nearly always translated through the map whether illustrating streets, tourist destinations or transportation systems. Indeed, urban experience in an unfamiliar context is typically an exchange between cartographic spaces and the materials of the built environment. Considered in this manner it is evident that urban and cartographic spaces are entwined and continue to exist in a mutual relationship with each other, surviving temporal shifts and developments. With the increasing growth of potential opportunities and creative practice for urban mapping it is important to remember that the critical discourse surrounding public space and notions of privacy and place must continue in order to parallel such developments and frame them in an intelligible manner. One of the most prevalent capacities of the information age is the accessibility and exchange of data, rendering the previously latent visible. This project, developed by Joe Haire, Felicity Hurling, Dicky Lewis and Dan Stock, created an interface for data collation, cellular automation and site designation.

  • By utilising the interface of postcode data and Ordnance Survey grid based sub-divisions it is possible to design live applications that offer a multitude of possibilities not simply confined to architecture or urban design.Image
  • In this particular manifestation live data from a number of sources pertaining to lifestyle choices was streamed to a cellular automata model. Image
  • This included crime rates, house prices, leisure facilities and such and their respective incidence in each cell. By using a sliding scale against the assigned 15 parameters prospective householders or developers were offered possibilities as to the best area to live or to start their business.Image
  • The possible application of this software is effectively limitless in terms of the scale at which it is applied, the number of parametric inputs and the needs of any particular user as yet undetermined.Image

urban informatics and data navigation

The mapping of latent urban conditions as a diagnostic tool with which to evolve discourse and develop sites of enquiry for architectural design is becoming transformative to our understanding of them. The increasingly widespread cartographic impulse that pertains to numerous branches of creative practice is coupled with the accessibility, accumulation and mapping of data surrounding the built environment. How this information is transposed and described through maps to reveal characteristics of the urban landscape becomes significant in the pursuit of developing dynamic modes of enquiry, reflecting the flux of the city itself. This type of activity and communication affords instrumentality and interpretation of complex datasets and extant scenarios. Indeed, as we progressively mediate our experience of urban conditions through a variety of digital media, the phenomenal and ephemeral aspects of the city may also experience a transformation that provides opportunities to both understand and negotiate the boundaries and layers that were previously distinct but are evolving a greater coterminous relationship. This shift provided the platform for the research paper ‘Interface and Implementation: negotiating the boundaries between physical landscape and digital territories for architectural design’ presented by the authors at the recent Theoretical Currents II: Architecture and its Geographical Horizons, held at EMMTEC, University of Lincoln, 4-5 April 2012. The paper also critically discussed the appropriation of mapping methodologies and representation for architecture as a means through which the complex spatial demarcation of the contemporary urban realm and its, often unstable, geographies may be useful in edifying our knowledge of such situations. The syncretised nature of urban space comprising of the physical and the perceptual was then extrapolated as a notion through which we may reveal and further understand the traces of various cultures that hitherto reside on the edges of normative society.


OODA Loop, John Boyd, 1976.

mapping the internet

The image was published in 2007 and is the work of research scientists at the Bar Ilan and Hebrew Universities in Israel.


A map of the internet circa 2003 showing the connections between different internet routers, from the Opte Project.

Peer 1 Hostings - Map of the internet

Chris Harrison - Internet visualisation

Chris Harrison - Internet visualisation

It is strange that visual representations of the internet are always explicitly structured and often align with the perceived mental image of ‘network’. There is frequently an ethereal allure to these vaguely recognisable structures and a sense of tangibility and simultaneously an unfathomable, but believable, complexity. The recent rush for new methods of infographics has been captured in several books, most notably the two volumes of Data Flow and also in McCandless’s Information is Beautiful, but the beauty and complexity expounded in these compendiums is at odds with the physical infrastructure of the web; endless cables and wires that circumnavigate the globe at one scale and end up in tangled knots behind our desks at another. That isn’t to mention the vast server farms that are growing up next to a river near you (vast amounts of cooling water) and requiring the onward construction of new power stations to support the huge amount of energy consumed in data storage and processing.

At one end, yes, the web is strange, complex, alluring and beautiful, at the other its a messy, messy business.

projection mapping / light space

Pablo Valbuena - Medialab Prado, Madrid

First brought to our attention via the digital archive slowly building on the excellent ICASEA blog attached to the UK/JP electronic art label, the work of artist/architect Pablo Valbuena challenges the perception of space by the direct manipulation of light to create complex geometric illusions. The use of form, space and light, highly conventional architectural terms, as layers of intervention and re_presentation through sculpture and projection mapping in his work is well removed from the prevalent employment of such.

Perhaps of most interest here are the interventions in urban space, rather than those in interior environments. The animation of the hard rectilinear landscape outside of the Medialab Prado in Madrid (2007) is a post-Tron digital dissection of space. It is remarkable how the aesthetic of cybernetic art has returned to a minimal and binary position. The works of Carsten Nicolai and Ryoji Ikeda have consistently relied upon a retreat to minimal linear and geometric form that can be easily perceived as not too distant from the pioneering work of Lloyd Sumner and Roman Verostko.

Ryoji Ikeda - Datamatics

mapping disease

Prior to an April 2009 research trip to the US, the authors were marginally concerned over the outbreak of swine flu in Queens, New York. The authors also have associates in Mexico.

The speed with which we can now record and share global data at simple and accessible level is historically unparalleled, and this recent possible pandemic has brought this fact into focus, perhaps more clearly than ever before.

Live update of swine flu cases across the globe. Image from google maps