Exhibition image released by Esri to promote the Urban Observatory project.

Exhibition image released by Esri to promote the Urban Observatory project.

A trio of American innovators – information architect Richard Saul Wurman, geographic systems entrepreneur Jack Dangermond and filmmaker Jon Kamen – are launching a new data visualisation system to compare conditions and activities across different cities.

Exhibiting to around 15,000 attendees at this year’s Esri user conference in San Diego, 8-12 July 2013, the system is named after Wurman’s 1960s ‘Urban Observatory’ (collecting performance measurements) concept that has been promoted by United Nations agencies in developing countries since the early 1990s.

The new Urban Observatory exhibition will involve an array of flat screens showing dynamic visualisations of similar kinds of datasets on same-scale maps of different cities. Between seven and 14 cities are expected to be highlighted for the first series of shows.

These flickering images will update Wurman’s early 1960s ‘mud models’ (plasticine land contours of 50 cities scaled at 600 feet per inch) for the post-Google Earth era; where Big Data analytics are required to help solve the world’s wicked challenges. Wurman and Dangermond have noted that the zooms of popular Google-style digital maps currently do not display scales of measurement – so area-related information, like sizes of lakes, roads and land lots, are not easily compared.

In a joint white paper, Wurman, Dangermond and Kamen said: ‘Unfortunately, no two cities in the world collect information in the same way. The questions are not asked the same way, using a common language. Maps are drawn not to the same scale or use the same symbology. There are no consistent, shareable plans illustrating street networks, power grids, water distribution, and petroleum infrastructure. Population age, water quality, health care, income, cost of living, or quality of life cannot be viewed in a dynamic, comparative way from cities in Asia to Africa to the Americas.

‘The result—despite vast stores of data captured, collated, and stored – is limited knowledge and understanding. There is no sense of comparative scale or complexity. There is only confusion and questions left unanswered. The Urban Observatory seeks to provide understanding through comparison and contrast.’

Esri (the global geographic information systems conglomerate founded and led by Dangermond) is calling publicly for more than 30 different types of datasets to help build a global Urban Observatory databank. Its list of desired data is:

Statistical Data

—Climate, annual heating and cooling degree days
—GDP Per Capita
—Age Distribution
—Poverty
—Air Quality Measurements

Map Data

—Population, by smallest census unit
—Income, by smallest census unit
—Demographics, by smallest census unit
—Road Networks, categorized by type
—Public Transit Networks, lines and stations
—Public Transit Participation, number of riders per network
—Fire Station Locations, number of staff per location and facilities per capita
—Law Enforcement Facilities, number of staff per location and facilities per capita
—Crime Locations
—Crime Statistics, by smallest census unit
—Hospital Locations, number of beds and facilities per capita
—Emergency Rooms, number of beds and facilities per capita
—Open Public Spaces
—Schools and Universities
—Sports Facilities
—Public Libraries
—Building Footprints, coded by number of stories
—Cemeteries and Crematoria
—Sanitation, major networks and facilities
—Water, major networks and facilities
—Electricity, major networks and facilities
—Homelessness, locations and by smallest census unit
—Health, per capita disease rates
—Corrections, coded by number incarcerated
—Government Spending Per Capita
—New Construction/Permits
—Labor Force Participation, by smallest census unit
—Education Level, by smallest census unit
—Environmental Hazards/Pollutants, locations and per capita