Q & A with Marian Dörk on the UN’s Habitat III conference and the role of the data visualization for sustainable urban futures

Photo: Matthew Tobiasz

Marian Dörk is a Research Professor for information visualization at the Urban Futures Institute for Applied Research and the Urban Complexity Lab at University of Applied Sciences Potsdam, Germany.

This October, the UN will hold its biggest ever summit on the future of cities. Why have cities become such a hot topic at this point in history?

Marian: By 2050, more than 70% of the world’s population will be living in cities. Cities also produce most of the world’s GDP and greenhouse gas emissions, yet they are the key to a more sustainable future. The future of humanity lies in cities. Ecological and social crises affect both urban and rural areas, but cities are a laboratory where we can better understand the complex causes of today’s grand challenges and find holistic approaches to addressing them.

Why are you going to Quito and what you hope to achieve there?

Marian: We’re going to Quito to demonstrate that data visualization can be an important partner for designing the future of cities. For that, we’ve teamed up with Future Earth and the International Council for Science to build Habitat X Change. This will be an event and exhibition space, where people from diverse backgrounds with a common interest in science, visualization, and sustainability of cities can take part in an exciting program of talks, workshops, and panel discussions at the intersection of these topics. Furthermore, we are sharing the results from an open call for city visualizations that teams of scientists, developers, and designers have submitted in the run-up to Habitat III. We will also exhibit a working prototype of a visualization framework (with the working title “vis tent”) that blends physical city models with digital data visualizations of three cities.

So Habitat X Change is a collaboration between science and visualization — could you explain the basis for the collaboration? Is it a common partnership?

Marian: All partners in Habitat X Change share the recognition that complex challenges such as climate change are difficult to communicate. In order to inform decision-making at various levels, especially in cities, we need more research and design to develop new ways to bridge the gap between knowledge and practice. Data visualization (a scientific field itself) has in recent years become popular in the media, in particular to communicate scientific findings or when stories are complex and daunting to convey in text alone. The next challenge is for visualization to step up its role as a natural ally in communicating science to decision makers in business and civil society.

The “Vis Tent” — could you talk a little more about this? What is it and how can city stakeholders engage with it, what can they learn from it?

Marian: The “Vis Tent” — we’re still looking for a better name for it — is a hybrid visualization framework for cities that we’re building at FH Potsdam with some support from the mapmakers at HERE. The visualization brings together the traditional city model in physical form with projections of different urban data patterns. The physical model differentiates between water, land, streets, and buildings, while the projection represents various dynamic aspects of the city such as air quality, traffic, and population density. This allows, for example, to easily see where and at which times of the day and week traffic is particularly busy. By incorporating multiple data dimensions one can also analyze how certain dimensions may correlate — such as traffic and air quality. For Habitat III we are preparing visualizations of three cities: Bogotá, Cape Town, and Singapore. We have just recently launched cf. city flows, a comparative visualization on bike sharing, which has demonstrated the potential of juxtaposing and contrasting multiple cities. Visitors will be able to see these three cities next to each other and examine urban data patterns.

How about the open call for visualizations? Is there a way to share the winning entries and their unique insights with policymakers and city stakeholders attending Habitat III?

Marian: Yes, we will have a dedicated event at Habitat X Change, during which we present the winning entries and give an overview of the latest trends in visualizing cities. Throughout Habitat III we will also exhibit a broad range of city visualizations submitted by visualization groups from around the world. These have been reviewed by an international programme committee of researchers in data visualization, urban sciences and communication. We are planning Q&As with the people behind the winning entries either live during the presentation or afterwards on our blog.

What happens after Quito?

Marian: Quito is just one step on the road towards a much more integrated approach to visualization and science. Our core activities at FH Potsdam involve research and teaching on urban futures, so we will continue our work on visualization and other related topics in cooperation with city administrators, but also with partners from industry and civil society. The results of the visualization call will be shared on a web platform that is planned to be a continuously evolving resource for those interested in the science and visualization of cities. We are planning international workshops and summer schools on visualizing cities with scientists and stakeholders in the months and years to come.