Trailing data as we go: how data has become our digital DNA

Places, Futures & Technology

Data, as spatial strategist Inaki Arbeleiz observes, is a new utility — it’s become as essential and as commonplace in our lives as electricity or water. But what does this mean for places and their narratives?

As we move through cities, streets and environments, we’re leaving trails of data behind us — what Inaki calls our ‘digital DNA’. Data patterns emerge from our vectors of movement, revealing a detailed story of information, activity and connectivity: how we travelled, who we were there with, where we shopped and how much we spent, the messages we sent and the things we searched for.

For Arbeleiz, these data ‘stories’ we leave are the bedrock of good analysis, enabling those who make places to better understand our environments, how we use them, and what we need from them, in ever more detailed ways. A ‘smart place’ is one where the use of this kind of data is being maximised to strategise, design and improve spaces and environments. What’s also interesting about this kind of data patterning is some of the questions it raises. If we made the data patterns, do we own them? Who can see these patterns, and how can they use them?

By other definitions, ‘smart places’ might be those that use data to be responsive to the needs of people in real time. Our experiences of place are increasingly non-linear, continually interrupted and redirected by GPS-enabled apps and alerts that warn you that your Tube station is closed, flag up the Allpress cafe just one street over, or reveal a potential love interest sitting at the bar you’re walking past. These might be the new narratives of place: reactive, personalised and changeable as quicksilver.

Platforms for connecting us to shared data are changing the way we conceptualise places. From ubiquitous tools such as Google Maps to platforms like AirBnb, our understanding of a place is framed before we’ve even arrived there, from our knowledge of its layout to our sense of its ‘story’. Contemporary ‘smart’ narratives of place identity and experience may be those that take better account of this expectation-setting, using the pre-visit data to inform our experiences in different ways.

Lastly, the connections between where we are, and where we’re not, are in many ways collapsing the parameters of physical place. We’re generating data and experiences in places that we’re not physically in. As you walk down the street in London, you might be talking on FaceTime to Istanbul; as you sit in Shanghai, you’re renovating a house in Boston; in an office in New York, you’re redesigning a district in Qatar. What does ‘place’ mean in this context, and where are we ‘located’? In this sense, we’re already living narratives that fluidly leap over physical distance towards a new concept of virtual and co-present places.

Read the full interview with Inaki Arbelaiz on, or share your views on how we can use our digital data.