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4 Ways Our Data Is Already Changing The Design Of The World Around Us

We generate mountains of data as we move through the city. It represents a new frontier for urban planners, architects, and designers.

By now, you’re aware that the very minutiae of your life is being collected—whether via the smartphone in your pocket, the CCTV camera in the hallway, or the computer on your desk. While the privacy issues surrounding ubiquitous tracking are only just beginning to emerge in earnest, this avalanche of data is also helping scientists, designers, and engineers understand the built world in entirely new ways.

At the 2016 Fast Company Innovation Festival, the global architecture firm NBBJ brought together a panel of experts to discuss the impact of data on human-centered design, led by NBBJ medical planner Suzy Genzler along with partner Tim Johnson. From the office scale to the city scale, here are a few of the ways ubiquitous data collection is changing the way buildings and even cities are designed.

The Workplace

A Humanyze badge [Photo: courtesy the author]

Of all the panelists, Ben Waber was the only one wearing his work—in the form of a small, white, business card-sized sensor hanging around his neck on a lanyard. This is an ID badge made by Waber’s company, Humanyze. It's packed with sensors that can do everything from track the wearer's location within an office to record his or her conversations during a meeting.

Humanyze is using these badges—in conjunction with its own analysis software—to understand what’s really going on within businesses and companies. Where do most conversations take place? Where do teams need more interaction? What spaces are most or least used, and why? "Essentially companies are using this technology to A/B test how they manage their business," Waber said during the panel.

This kind of data collection could have a huge impact on office design, too. "What’s the most cost-effective thing to do from a space perspective? Everyone works from home. That's it. We're done," Waber said. "But of course, we feel like there's some value to people being here, working together. But what is that? If you can't quantify it, if you can't show the value of human connection, then you're going to have problems long-term actually getting companies and even people to invest in it."

Parks and Public Spaces

A sensor used by Placemeter [Photo: courtesy the author]

Computer vision—the technology that lets computers analyze images—is already ubiquitous in our online lives. But Placemeter is one of the first companies using it to study the physical world—in particular, our cities. The company’s cofounder and COO, Florent Peyre, explained how it has developing inexpensive sensors to capture video in public spaces—"capturing the pulse of the city"—and using computer vision to analyze what it sees before passing along its findings, which can help transit planners understand traffic flows and cities redesign parks or plazas, for example.

This data allows cities to test prototype designs and quantify how well they work before implementing them on a larger scale. For example, Paris is using Placemeter sensors in the Place de la Nation, a large public plaza. As the city tests different traffic patterns and plaza designs, Placemeter sensors are serving as their eyes on the street—quite literally—counting people, cars, and bikes as different scenarios are tested.

It's not about making design suggestions, though: "It’s very hard for us to say we’re going to be better than an urban planner," Peyre said, "because we’re not." Instead, Placemeter provides the raw data and analysis that urban planners need to make more informed decisions.

Transit Systems

But what about in cities where conventional transit isn’t necessarily mandated by the government? That’s the case in Nairobi, Kenya, where matatus—privately operated buses—serve as a primary form of transit. As Sarah Williams, director of the Civic Data Design Lab at MIT, explained, these networks of matatus had never been mapped—they’re, by nature, an ad hoc system that has leapfrogged over conventional transit planning.

In 2014, she and her team set out to map the matatus for the first time using an app on riders’ smartphones, translating that GFTS mapping data into a comprehensive map of the matatu network. It became the first informal transit system to be include on Google Maps.

The project, Digital Matatus, is an example of the power of collective data. "We all have this ubiquitous computer on us. Can we use it to provide essential services in those areas where the government is not doing it?" Williams said. "The idea is to give the government data, in a way, to help them provide better service."

The Home

For Argodesign founder Mark Rolston, the ability to identify and collect granular data on human behavior has vast implications for interface design—especially when it comes to our homes and offices. Awash in data, he said, we still need an interface, or affordance, that can translate it into something humans can interact with.

"Our attitude has been, how do we—first and foremost not for collection but for customer value—make the room a computer?" he asked. "You'll learn a hell of a lot about what people are doing in those rooms, but more interestingly for me, can we make the room active in a way that we get value as a group?"

Interactive Light, a new prototype from Argodesign, is a proof-of-concept: Using projectors, cameras, and microphones, the system tracks you as you move around a room, supplying contextual interfaces projected onto your environment. If you’re cooking, it might project the relevant recipe and allow you to swipe to the next step on your kitchen counter. During a design meeting, it might bring stakeholders together to discuss their ideas not huddled around a laptop, but the table and objects on it.

The idea the entire panel seemed to return to, again and again? We can collect all the data we want. The key is finding a way to synthesize it into something useable and relevant for our still-very-human brains.

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