Urban Observatory pledges to create smart maps based on powerful data

Some of the biggest names in thinking and mapping unveiled Urban Observatory, a “live museum with a data pulse,” at the 2013 Esri International User Conference Monday.

The interactive online exhibit allows users to view three maps of three different cities to compare a wide range of data sets, from climate to incarcerations, from traffic patterns to open space. In order to make these comparisons meaningful, Urban Observatory had to standardize massive amounts of data.

Urban Observatory population density

Until now, official maps have been regional, with different countries and governments classifying information as they saw fit. For example, one city might separate light and heavy industrial areas while another might fit it all under commercial development. Similarly, one culture might consider a cemetery to be an open space while another classifies it as religious. That’s not to mention the incongruity of map style, color or scale place to place. Google Maps nearly started a war based on varying borders definitions.

Organizers hope that will change with Urban Observatory, a joint venture between the creator of TED Conferences Richard Saul Wurman, Academy Award winning film company Radical Media, and worldwide mapping company Esri.

Getty Images
Getty Images

“People within a certain field need to talk to each other,” Wurman told GigaOM from the conference in San Diego. While scientists and doctors are able to communicate outside of language barriers because of standardizations in their fields, much of that conversation has been lost for urban planners, who have to deal with maps that differ place to place.

“Having a common language helps you with communicating success and failures,” he said. “There are reasons cities internally and externally should understand each other with clarity and speak the same language.”

These reasons involve being able to learn from other places in order to conduct intelligent urban planning, fight crime and conserve resources, among others. The free ArcGIS Online web application uses data contributed from 16 cities as well as information from with Esri’s substantial database and Nokia’s Here traffic data.

Urban Observatory open space

Users can zoom in and move around a city and its data set and the other two windows respond accordingly, making it easier to compare the cities. 

The additional benefits of this project will be found with use and time. “I’m more interested in what you’re learning than what I’m learning,” Wurman said of exploring Urban Observatory, adding that the project will eventually expand and find a new home, where it will update continually like an app.

See below for a video explanation by Urban Observatory’s founders.

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