Educating the public about design and data

The Chicago Architecture Foundation’s latest major exhibition focuses on big data. We spoke with president and CEO Lynn Osmond about creating public dialogues to increase understanding of the fast-evolving field of design.

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Architecture is a highly complex discipline, and is getting more so all the time. How do you decide what CAF programming will focus on?

That’s the hardest thing: to figure which topics we can really add our voice to. We can’t be everything to all people.

We think of ourselves as translators. As we’re taking people on a tour of the architecture of the city, we’re acting as a translation vehicle. Whenever we’re doing a lecture at CAF with an architect, we always make sure they’re talking a language that the public can understand, because our prime audience is the public. We certainly do a lot of work with the profession, but a lot of it is connecting those two.

With big data, nobody really knew what it was until Edward Snowden came along. He brought it to the limelight, and all the sudden we were hearing about people getting access to your data and Big Brother.

It’s the new building material of the 20th century. The data’s out there. We’ve got to tell people the story of how it can be used to make better cities, better environments, and better buildings.

So that’s the purpose of the exhibition: to allow people to see how this data that’s being collected can be used to form a better environment for everybody.

How did you go about processing this kind of information to make it accessible and interesting for the audience?

We looked at what resources were out there, what data was being collected and how it was being interpreted. We also looked at, if I’m a citizen in the street, how is my data being collected? We thought, everybody waits at their street corner to cross the street, so let’s just make it so that you have a new set of glasses to see your street corner. You have the red light camera that goes on. You have the big-belly solar compactor that says, “Pick me up, I’m full.” You have the Divvy bikes coming through. You have the traffic sensor that says when the light turns green. So really giving people a sense of, these are all the data points; how do they congeal together to change the way you plan a city?

What have you learned about how Chicago compares to other cities in terms of data?

One of the big things is that we’re open source. We’re not trying to hide our data away; we’re putting it out there for the public. A lot of it’s raw data, but it’s available.

The mayor wants Chicago to be a leader in this area of open data, so he’s working to make that happen. The city’s really open in promoting civic hackathons. We’re working with a group of civic hackers to talk about what app or device or translation we can make that will enhance the exhibit.

Do architects and the general public view big data differently?

I think the big thing is just that architects are using it now. They’re becoming aware of what the capabilities are, whereas the public still really isn’t cognizant of how it’s used to make decisions. I think that everyone thinks of big data as something as marketers use; they don’t think of it as something that planners use.

When we started trying to fundraise for this it was very challenging. People didn’t understand why the Architecture Foundation was trying to do something on big data. They thought that was out of our sweet spot. But we had to say that this is the new building material of the 21st century; people need to be aware of it. We need to engage the public in this dialogue.

And now that the exhibit’s open, we look brilliant [laughs]. But up until that point it was a hard sell.

Interview edited and condensed.

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