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Building a Powerful Tool for Sustainable Cities

Over the last year we’ve been working with the Neptis Foundation to deliver the Neptis Geoweb, a tool that unfolds the layers of history underlying the modern-day Toronto area and unpacks what’s set to happen in the future. Right now around the world cities are planning for an uncertain future: trying to build resilient environments in the face of climate change and environmental degradation, at the same time as making people happier and healthier. Easy access to digestible data, as demonstrated on the Geoweb, is fundamental for getting to the world we want.

Cities are essential for sustainability

Half of all humans live in the world’s cities. Those cities drive some of the biggest social and environmental problems of our time, from poverty and inequality to pollution, degradation and greenhouse gas emission. That’s why there’s a whole goal about cities in the Sustainable Development Goals that aims to deliver all the things we want from our homes — safe and affordable housing, good transport, safe green — while reducing those negative impacts — like disasters, pollution and poverty.

To get there we’ll need some powerful visualisations to illuminate the pressing problems and where they exist, so we can prioritise our actions. Those visualisations can also help you track progress as you go, so you can refine and improve everything you do. If you demonstrate just how successful that new filtration system is for keeping water clean, you can scale it across your area and into other areas. All of that is dependent on high quality, disaggregated open data of course (read this blog for more on that).

At the same time we need to bring everyone together behind a common understanding and allow them to have their say. Open data visualisations, where everyone can see the same data and understand it, can be really important for building that consensus. But more than that, by democratising the data you have through apps, tools and websites, you can empower people to take more sustainable actions in their own lives.

Toggle different layers on the Geoweb to see where urban expansion might impact greenbelt and countryside areas.

The Neptis Example

So how do those principles apply in the context of the Neptis Geoweb? How can you design open data visualisations that support the achievement of sustainable development goals?

It all starts with the user. Everyone has a certain mental model of the world: that’s their compass to navigate the visualisation. They use that to choose the keywords, signs or icons to click and interact with, which they think will lead them to the information they’re looking for. With the Geoweb we’ve structured the data views (map, area profiles, themes and user stories), the map icons and the layers to fit the way people think about the region and the various issues around its future development, to help them find information quickly and easily.

The next thing to look at is the time it takes to arrive at an insight from that information. Especially in datasets as large and complex (both spatially temporally) as those assembled by the Neptis Foundation, you have to think carefully about the choice of visualisation to ensure the data is presented at its most salient. You want to make sure you reveal the patterns in the data, rather than obscuring understanding or providing so many options that you induce analysis paralysis. That’s another reason why we decided to show the data through thematic and area based pages, as well as a map: certain aspects of the data were easier to interpret through those lenses.

The final consideration is around the speed of sharing. Providing a platform for people to share and publish the insights they generate is essential if you want to engage a wider audience and allow them to participate in discussions about the future of an area. Alongside standard link sharing options, you can publish your story (it’s just a map, title and some text) for others to read and comment on. This makes it easier for people to drive and contribute to the debate.

Location-based profiles, like this one for the City of Toronto, are targeted to people that want to learn about a specific area

Global Goals rely on Local Legibility

The Neptis Foundation have a great tool to facilitate their efforts to engage people in the Greater Toronto Metropolitan area with discussions about how they want their area to look by 2050. Will there be more greenspace or less? Which areas will house the growing population, and where will they work? Getting people to act at this level — in their own backyard, where all these global processes come together and impact their lives — could make all the difference for achieving local and global change.

With intuitive visualisation, data displayed at its most meaningful, and the opportunity for people to talk around the data, it has the main ingredients needed to catalyse and empower people around the SDGs.

So head on over and have a look! What do you think will happen by 2050?

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Posts on data design, user research, open data, and software development. We create tools and applications with a lasting benefit to society and the environment.

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