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An emblem of New York City, generated using Python Turtle based on 14 different points of data about the city.

Emblems: Symbolizing City Data

Mariya Chekmarova and HK Dunston

“On the day when I know all the emblems,” he asked Marco, “shall I be able to possess my empire, at last?”

And the Venetian answered: “Sire, do not believe it. On that day you will be an emblem among emblems.”

(Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities)

Can the data we encounter about cities define them? Or does data, like the ostrich feathers and tales of leaping fish Marco Polo brought to Kublai Khan in Calvino’s fable, offer only glimpses of what a city might be? Is possession of the real city beyond our grasp? These generated “emblems”, based on data about 15 cities in the US, and reinterpreted through layers of spirographs, capture elements of the variety and dynamism of each city, seeming to distinguish one from another. But they are beautiful cautionary tales, subjective in their creation and expressive in their interpretation. Our hope is that by shifting our view, we might begin to explore the equal, but less acknowledged subjectivity in other, more customary ways of interpreting information about cities. The emblems represent a pantomime of comparison, elaborate gestures to make us pause and consider city data itself, with its implicit authority and rational sharp edges, as perhaps simply another story we tell of distant lands.

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This project originated in Anthony Vanky’s Urban Informatics class at Columbia GSAPP and was revised for Data x Design 2020.


  • Thor Simon provided much needed technical expertise and support, both for the generation of the spirographs and the installation of the project at Data x Design
  • Rebecca Lamm offered hands-on expertise in animation and the conversion of these spirographs from code to a video animation.
  • Nathalie De La Gorce offered masterful art direction and design inspiration.

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