follow-up: Impact Data Lab in Amman

Having recently returned from a four-day workshop with Visualizing Impact and Columbia's Studio-X Amman, what follows are only a couple takeaways from a remarkable event and several remarkable individuals. I had the distinct pleasure of spending much of the workshop serving as a mentor and advisor to the five interdisciplinary design teams, working through a concentrated charrette to produce proofs of concept and prototype visualizations each pertaining to topics on human rights in Palestine. Although the topics ranged from education and gender to digital rights and historical mapping, the process and products (all of which were astounding and encouraging) raised a handful of questions worthy of reflection beyond the particularities of specific subject matter.

  Amman, from the  Darat Al Funun  gallery. 

Amman, from the Darat Al Funun gallery. 

On the many deployments of DataViz: Within academic research, the uses of data visualization are rather clearly delineated and our approaches to developing those visualizations are designed to fit each use. We visualize as a mode of analysis or as a means of communicating results. There are, of course, instances when those two uses are intertwined and cases when visualizations are applied to other ends after-the-fact, but rarely are the conflicts between intended uses so pronounced and the lines between them so blurred that we grapple with what (and how) the image—static, interactive, plugin, or platform—must do. During the last week, I was delighted (and challenged) to revisit these concerns which ranged from leveraging or questioning the seeming veracity of quantitative information and identifying the boundary between editorializing and storytelling. Almost every team seemed simultaneously tasked with developing outputs that "report" in a journalistic tone, act as tools for advocacy, educate or support education, operate as objects around which existing but disparate communities can gather or coalesce, actively intervene in discourses of conflict, and even create resources for capital-R Research. These are incredibly different aims implying almost impossibly different methodologies, some of which stand in direct conflict with the others, raising ethical concerns from multiple disciplines that often go without discussion or acknowledgement in DataViz circles. And this discussion—between what is possible, meaningful, strategic, responsible, and ethical; between which audiences, readers, users, and constituents are served by each—was difficult, necessary, and beautiful.

On the lack of data and its opportunities: Given the dearth of high-quality, publicly available information on some of our most challenging topics, the questions of how to "make do" with the information we have was a frequent point of discussion, even through the project presentations that concluded the workshop. Despite our grandest ambitions, sometimes it is worthwhile to remember a few preliminary points: (1) In working with data-poor regions and/or data-controlled topics, often simply creating and sharing a reliable and rigorously sourced data set constitutes a major contribution to both scholarly and activist work. (2) Don't apologize for what available data isn't. At a certain point, the interpretative caveats about a dataset outweigh whatever story one is trying to derive from it. Consider the data you have for what it is, and tell that story. (3) Sometimes, there is a meaningful story behind why data doesn't exist. And, we can be sure there's a powerful story to be told when it does exist but is either inaccessible or substantially unreliable.

updates: Winter 2017/8

Another semester (and year) is officially in the books. Below are some highlights. This fall also saw a very slight re-org of the content here. As a result, notes on the somewhat-immediate future are now here.

  the best part of my fall '17 inbox: benchmark selfies from the GIS class

the best part of my fall '17 inbox: benchmark selfies from the GIS class

After reworking the GIS class at GSAPP, a long-time dream has come true: several different degree programs represented in the room. Officially GIS and cartographic analysis

After reworking the GIS class at GSAPP, a long-time dream has come true: several different degree programs represented in the room. Officially, GIS and cartographic analysis was used to bridge between students working toward masters (and doctoral) degrees in planning, architecture, urban design, and real estate. I couldn't be more ecstatic about that. (Given my near-religious take on GIS, I almost literally mean that.) A few highlights are up on my Teaching: GIS page.

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The Building Justice Studio in Architecture and Urban Planning at Rikers Island wrapped up another session this fall with the Justice-In-Education initiative at Columbia's Center for Justice. To the right: an awesome illustration of the studio's cumulative, collaborative curriculum, drawn by Emily Brockenbrough. I also presented some of the work at the ACSP conference in Denver during a special session on planning's engagement with mass incarceration.

Let's see. I saw Houston before Harvey and Miami after Irma. I left Atlanta as the Georgia Dome imploded. (In my "Ground-truthing GIS in America" travels, I've also seen Tomball TX and Chamblee & Doraville, GA—both taking me back to the years of mapping and research for The Buell Hypothesis.) I celebrated the biennial in Chicago, and delivered two very different talks on the same day in Montreal. Since September, I've taken almost fifteen thousand photographs, documenting and comparing a collection of morphological and environmental characteristics I won't bore you by listing here. And, still, snapping photos through airplane windows never gets old.

Updates: Fall 2017

Summer is finally subsiding, and classes are in full swing. So, here are a few updates and notes on things upcoming.

  Approaching Las Vegas.

Approaching Las Vegas.

Ground-Truthing GIS in America
Much of the summer was spent either traveling or preparing to travel: on-the-ground verification of recent research and in-the-field sense-making of new visualizations of several mid-sized American cities. About half of the case study cities have been covered (and I've re-learned how to drive), with the other half scheduled for this fall. All this is generously supported by a junior faculty grant from Columbia's Provost office, for the project DISTANCED: Intersectionality and Gendered Experiences of American Urban SpaceA few new papers are in the works, and earlier this month I had the pleasure of presenting some of the methodological process to students in a talk "Critical Distance: Notes on GIS from the Ground" within the school's Lectures in Planning Series. For now, here's an intentionally vague image of what's been on my screen lately.

  What's been on my screen: The aformentioned intentionally vague map of San Diego.

What's been on my screen: The aformentioned intentionally vague map of San Diego.

One of those cities was Houston, where I spent several days covering its neighborhoods and those of the surrounding suburbs, about a week before Hurricane Harvey altered the social and physical landscape. A few months of analysis and 2,500 photographs later, I'm grateful to have seen the city; and as we continue to wrestle with its effects—as well as the aftermath of Irma and Maria—I am considering what the pre-hurricane representations of the city offer us in recovery.

  Density & Connectivity: Land Use in Mid-Nineteenth-Century New York at the McCagg Gallery, Barnard College. (image: Tola Oniyangi)

Density & Connectivity: Land Use in Mid-Nineteenth-Century New York at the McCagg Gallery, Barnard College. (image: Tola Oniyangi)

Urban Humanities + GIS
"Density and Connectivity: Land Use in Mid-Nineteenth-Century New York" a collection of works with Gergely Baics—four cartographic panels, each featuring several maps at different scales—was exhibited at Barnard College in February and March. The work is currently on view at the Metropolitan New York Library Council through the fall. Since then, we've also had the opportunity to speak on our ongoing collaboration, including the greater-than-the-sum-of-our-parts nature of Humanities GIS research: keynoting "Humanizing Data: Data, Humanities, and the City" at NYU in April and leading an open biohistory group seminar at the University of Copenhagen in June. 

Continuing to reap from the fertile ground of Urban History GIS (it's the gift that keeps giving), Baics and I will be presenting two papers at the Social Science History Association conference in Montreal this November. One comparatively tests some of the metrics developed for 19th-C New York during the period in Montreal; the other, coauthored with Mikkel Thelle, investigates residential mobility and (in)stability in Copenhagen at the turn of the 20th century. 

I was delighted to, once again, teach with the Center for Spatial Research at Columbia this summer. Their Mapping for the Urban Humanities faculty bootcamp in GIS in humanities research is among the highlights of my year—even beyond my taking any chance for critical GIS evangelism, I delight in meeting new colleagues as they make that all-important spatial turn.

  from  Introduction to GIS, Spring 2017 .    (Tola Oniyangi & Joan Zhang)

from Introduction to GIS, Spring 2017.
(Tola Oniyangi & Joan Zhang)


Back to School
Having finished up the first year in my new role at Columbia, the summer also afforded a chance to assess some of the teaching changes and consider my courses moving forward. Last year's GIS course, as well as my Digital Restructuring of Urban Space seminar and thesis advising, was an absolute blast. Long-awaited additions to some of the teaching archive (for example here), have finally come to pass. 

I have also returned to Rikers Island with the Rikers Education Program at Columbia's Center for Justice. The newly renamed Building Justice Studio is gearing up for the fall class, and I'm looking forward to presenting some of the work at the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning conference next month in Denver during a special session on urban planning and mass incarceration. 

Goodbye 2016; Hello 2017

Because the Internet doesn't have enough end-of-year posts, I figured I should wrap up 2016 in a tidy little updates package secured with a note on things-to-come-in-2017 ribbon bow. Here goes.

  Once again, you'll find me on the third floor of Buell Hall.

Once again, you'll find me on the third floor of Buell Hall.

By far, the most substantial change and opportunity this past year was the start of a new position at Columbia's GSAPP when I joined the faculty in July as Assistant Professor in the Urban Planning Program. The fall was mostly getting settled, curriculum development for the program's Urban Analytics concentration, and beginning to scope out new research and courses. This new role, of course, comes at the end of three wonderful years with the Barnard and Columbia Colleges Architecture Department—three years for which I will always be grateful. At Barnard I learned more about teaching than I could've anticipated, while also developing research collaborations and gaining experience I'll carry into the long-term foreseeable future.

With Gergely Baics, 2016 saw a handful of new research developments and milestones for our ongoing work with historical GIS on land use patterns and urban morphology in midnineteenth-century New York. "Zoning before Zoning" was published in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers and later covered by Richard Florida in the Atlantic's CityLab. We presented new research at the Urban History Association conference, and another paper is in review. Additionally, we began a new body of HGIS work, with Mikkel Thelle at Aarhus University, on urban mobility and class in turn-of-the-century Copenhagen. Lastly (while not an update of my own), I'm very happy to celebrate and recommend Baics's new book Feeding Gotham which was released this year and named one of the years best books in history by Fortune

Beyond HGIS research, 2016 was certainly my year in Copenhagen. Cher (with C Blanchfield, G Cummings, J Kolb, and F Lofti-Jam) was selected and commissioned in January by the Oslo Architecture Triennale as a year-long intervention and investigation into the nature of the platform economy generally and home-sharing specifically. Through a research and engagement process of visits, meetings, workshops, an alpha test with focus groups, talks, and events, the "platform-as-provocation" launched in September alongside an installation at the Triennale in Norway at the National Museum of Architecture. 

This year also brought with it two expanding pedagogy opportunities—that is, two chances to consider teaching what I teach beyond my typical students. (1) With the Center for Justice, I developed and launched the Rikers Studio in Architecture and Urban Planning, a repeated four-week workshop for teenagers at Rikers Island as well as Columbia students. (2) With the Center for Spatial Research, I codeveloped and taught Mapping for the Urban Humanities, a boot camp of sorts for Columbia faculty looking to broaden their research methods and approaches with spatial technologies.

I was also privileged to speak and participate in some absolutely phenomenal discussions on a variety of topics this year. A small sampling includes talking about Datascapes and pluralistic approaches to urban mapping at the London School of Economics and the AIA Center for Architecture, about modes of spatial practice at Storefront for Art & Architecture and the Venice Biennale, about the sharing economy at the Met Breuer, about constructed social landscapes with Leslie Hewitt at the SculptureCenter, and about leadership in research and practice at the Columbia Women's Leadership Forum.

Upcoming in 2017: I've received a grant from Columbia's Provost office to begin exploratory research on GIS-based methods for describing differential experiences of space in pluralistic cities. The project DISTANCED: Intersectionality and Gendered Experiences of American Urban Space will begin this spring and continue through the year. I'll return to full-load teaching this semester with a brand new take on the planners' required Introduction to GIS (#IntroGIS) course and a revamping of my Digital Restructuring of Urban Space (#DigitalRestructuring) seminar. (Seriously, follow the hashtags on twitter this semester!) And, of course, much of what I've done this past year is groundwork laid for ongoing projects, ongoing teaching, and ongoing research.

Much more to come. Happy New Year.

follow up: In Conversation with Leslie Hewitt

Last week, I was lucky to sit down at the SculptureCenter with Leslie Hewitt for a conversation about...well, we didn't decide ahead of time what our conversation would cover.



Instead, we chose a series of images—each responding to images chosen by the other—and spoke through these of diptychs which contained their own conversation. What emerged was uncanny, thought-provoking, touching, and a great deal of fun. 

I believe the video of our conversation will be available at some near point in the future, and so I'll leave reflection on the actual content of the evening for another time. Instead—while there were many specific (and interesting in their own right) topics covered, comparisons made, and questions raised—one observation in particular keeps resonating. Leslie has noted before that generational similarities are instrumental and important in her collaborations—with Bradford Young, for example, with whom many of the works in in her show Collective Stance were created. And while the images we chose were very different (in content and in format), they spoke to (and allowed us to speak to) the same concerns, the same contexts in which we've developed our thinking, and the same collection of received ideas, received cultural memories and legacies, received understandings of representation, received structural conditions, and received experience of space(s).

  post-conversation (photo: Leslie Hewitt)

post-conversation (photo: Leslie Hewitt)

I suppose this is more than a matter of age, but rather a product of age. The earlier decades of Becoming Ourselves need to focus our attention on the processes of identity-construction that distinguish us from our peers. Of course, during that time we simply aren't equipped to see how Becoming Ourselves at the same time forges similarities and generational peer-ings. This is all perhaps a long-winded way of pointing out one truly great, humbling, and fascinating part of getting just a bit older: that another community emerges—one that was created for me by chronology, one that allows me to delight in remembering that we're not so special after all, and one ties us to a world of people who see the world similarly because of the nontrivial distinction between what was given to us and what we participated in making. Specific cultural contexts and individual identity-based experiences will never cease to inform our place (perceived, imposed, or otherwise) in the world. That said, I imagine that as globalization increases and "global culture" continues to proliferate, this generational identification might only become more applicable to future generations and might become a bridge across those contexts and identities.