Archive for January, 2013


The Unseen City

January 17, 2013

The majority of people in the world live in an urban environment. According to the United Nations, this watershed was reached on 23rd May 2007. Cities are seen as places of opportunity, from London’s streets paved with gold to New York’s ‘Big Apple’. They have a gravity that pulls in people, resources and land. Cities are places where disparate communities live cheek by jowl, where serendipity and spontaneity create potential for new direction and opportunity. This isn’t a flat landscape. Within the city many factors create inequality – whether it is access to services, jobs, transportation or even opportunity.

Cities themselves are complex organisms composed of many layers that have in most cases, evolved with the city. The physical manifestation of the city is that of roads and buildings, of built environment. It is tangible, concrete and visible. There are layers of processes, relationships and flows within the city, and what Matt Jones, Founder of Dopplr, described as the immaterial layer. The immaterial layer is data. It tracks, evidences and actuates. Although a proportion of this data is in the domain of commercial organisations, much of it is created by the city as part of its normal function of service delivery.

Public data is often held ad-hoc by proprietary systems and constrained by departmental or quasi-commercial restrictions. This data, when released, offers a chance for analysis and interpretation outside of the narrow field of view of its creating body. When Open Data Manchester petitioned for the release of local transportation data in 2010, the reasons were practical – timetables and stop locations will make people’s journeys easier. This, in a sense, suffered same myopia as that which created the data. It was when MySociety and then Stefan Whermeyer created dynamic isochronic maps (maps where travel times are overlaid onto a map with open data) that a new dimension to transportation within the city appeared.

Mapnificent - Isochronic Map of Manchester

On a base level, the map shows the distance that can be covered in a given time, which is useful if you are looking for somewhere to live and commute – but the more interesting revelation is when you start to look at how communities are served by public transport. How do you travel across the city that has a ‘spoke and hub’ transportation system and, intriguingly, where could possible pressures on public services, housing and amenities arise in the future. By describing schedules and stops, this data later – when combined with other data such as fare structures, indices of depravation or all manner of other datasets – reveals a previously invisible facet of the city.


Isochronic map showing tram journey times from 1914 – Courtesy of Manchester Archives

Manchester is, like many cities, a post industrial city. This map of the transportation system is not unlike the previous map and reveals travel times from the centre of Manchester using public transport in 1914. It is a similar sort of visualisation, revealing the same ‘spoke and hub’ nature of the the city’s transportation system, the difference being that the city of 1914 was a heavily industrialised city, with coal mines, cotton mills, steel works, chemical factories and workers’ neighbourhoods. The industrial city has long gone, but the traces of it can still be seen in the routes and stops of the transport system that we have today.

Data reveals other traces of this past. Heavy industry sometimes leaves a lasting stain on the land and neighbourhoods. Local anecdotes give a clue as to what once existed. In East Manchester where factories were built in close proximity to the homes of the workers, stories abound of molten metal being transported through residential streets, of blue pigeons or spontaneously combusting soil. What might seem like tall tails of a bygone era are incredibly important. UK local authorities have an obligation to map the legacy of heavy industry, with data being held in Contaminated Land registries. Often a charge is made to access it, restricting access to the wider community.

By making this type of data openly available, we create an environment where whimsical tales of discoloured wildlife are confirmed or discounted and people are able to decide whether they can grow their own food, or move into or out of an area. The City of Manchester, as part of its commitment to open data, has started started releasing Contaminated Land data and, although it is not perfect, at least it will enable people to start to understand the pollution that is around them. Some of the reports reveal land with unsafe quantities of arsenic and other metals – land that you would not want to grow your vegetables on. Data such as this is contentious as it reveals something about the local environment that previously  was only available to a few. Liberating this data has both benefits and challenges. On one hand, people can make more informed and choices and on the other hand, someone might find that the value of their home declines or their neighbourhood becomes less attractive.

By exposing a city’s data layer, we have the opportunity to reveal many of these insights and hopefully through this knowledge we can make our cities more equitable and understandable. Data is starting to be released revealing levels of depravation, crime and access to services within the city. This sometimes reveals what is unknown or what is known only to a few, and some of the data reinforces what was known only anecdotally.

Perception of an area is sometimes not confirmed by underlying data. A classic example is perception of crime against actual crime. People may live in an area where the level of crime is high, but the community environment might give the impression of relative safety. The underlying factors behind perception of crime are complex but the challenges around the releasing of such data are not unique.

Knowing about something isn’t the same as being able to do something about it, and work has to be done so that this new knowledge has a wider benefit. A local council representative, when asked about releasing contentious data, retorted “Who are we to tell people how bad their neighbourhoods are?” This is an important point that reveals something about the way public service has traditionally been delivered, where knowledge was held by a few who saw that their role was delivering service to, and not with, people. It also underlines the point that making data available is not enough. With openness comes responsibility – and this is incumbent on those who seek to create such an environment, that they also help create the the tools and understanding necessary for everyone to understand and act.

Perhaps revealing and opening up the data layer is the easy part. Cities have always had their asymmetries as far as access to knowledge, resources and the ability to act is concerned. But to return to the council official’s comment, “Who are we to tell people how bad their neighbourhoods are?” The answer, I would say, is “Who are we not to?”

This article was written for The Open Book, published by The Finnish Institute 2013