Big city, big data: Chicago exhibit connects people to the data they generate

Writer and Content Strategist, IBM Information & Analytics Group

Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will not die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistence.Daniel Burnham, architect and city planner

Few individuals have had a greater impact on the great American city of Chicago than architect and planner Daniel Burnham. He built some of the first skyscrapers in the world and oversaw construction of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. In the midst of late 19th century urban chaos, Burnham’s Plan of Chicago offered a vision of what a civilized American city could look like.

Chicago_model_2.jpgImagine if Burnham and his colleagues had access to the information that modern city planners and governments now take for granted. Chicago: City of Big Data, a new exhibit hosted by the Chicago Architecture Foundation, explores the digital age of urban design and the role data plays in the life of cities. Through a mix of interactive displays, recreated sections of Chicago and views into visitors’ personal data, visitors can get a first-hand look at how massive amounts of data generated citywide help architects, planners, engineers, city leaders and citizens better understand important issues and build smarter cities.

I visited the exhibit on its first day to experience it for myself. My first stop was the Chicago vital statistics dashboard designed and built in partnership with IBM’s City Forward initiative, a free, web-based platform developed and powered by the company as a civic resource, and IBM Interactive Experience. The large touch screen lets visitors visualize and interact with city data in real time, including hourly weather updates, housing and travel time comparisons with other cities, and even social media posts for different neighborhoods. As I tapped different sections of the screen, I could watch the number of bicycles available in the new Chicago bike rental program change as they were rented or returned to the nearest location, see the countdown in seconds to the next arriving bus or get up-to-the-minute information on air quality or construction permits issued.

dashboard_overview.jpgOther exhibit highlights include an amazing 3D model of Chicago built by architecture firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. Visitors can project a year’s worth of tweets, non-emergency calls and other data onto the model, which uses color-coded lights to show the location of requests for pest control, graffiti removal or other city services. Not surprisingly, as citizens emerged from the recent challenging winter, requests to repair potholes surpassed any other type of call.

"Seeing Chicago from a data perspective is amazing. My city has found a way to turn seemingly random information into something that can have a positive impact on every Chicagoan,"​ commented a lifelong Chicago resident.

There’s also historical information, such as how Burnham used data in creating his legendary Chicago plan. He tracked down the miles of railroad track in the city and the mast height of ships traveling on the Chicago River to inform his design decisions. Visualizations created by social scientists from the University of Chicago chart data collected through door-to-door interviews with residents from 1895 to 1936. Their color-coded maps shed light on poor housing conditions and overcrowding, and are early examples of how data was used to visualize the makeup of a crowded city neighborhood, helping to set standards for light, air, ventilation and plumbing.

We’ve come a long way since Burnham’s Plan of Chicago. Powerful new analytical tools are available to help civic leaders and planners worldwide consolidate and analyze masses of historical and current data, spot patterns and trends and use those insights to make decisions that improve the lives of residents for decades to come.

Chicago: City of Big Data is an enlightening look at how the data we generate can help us explore and find solutions to the issues that matter to everyone: transportation, public health and safety, education and sustainability.

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