Transforming Big Data into Big Understanding

Redlands, California—Last year, Richard Saul Wurman, @RadicalMedia, and Esri unveiled the Urban Observatory, which began the process of encouraging cities to use the common language of maps to understand patterns in diverse datasets. The next generation of Urban Observatory will make its global debut at the 2014 Esri User Conference, to be held July 14–18 in San Diego.

"Our world has always had big data surrounding us that, until recently, has remained untapped for any real understanding," said Wurman. "We are several iterations into developing a common language for mapping urbanization. It will allow cities to understand not only the major threads of their performance, land use, and contents comparatively but [also,] eventually, the nuance of change and action."

The Urban Observatory is a first-of-its-kind interactive exhibit, aiming to make the world’s data both understandable and useful by giving people the ability to compare and contrast data from cities worldwide–with one touch screen.

"Can you imagine the joy of that moment when pictorial representations of people and animals allowed us to cement our memories and meanings and showed common observations of the same piece of information?" said Wurman. "The map is a pattern made understandable. Well, that is what we are doing."

At least half of the world’s population is currently living in urbanized areas. The Global Health Observatory (GHO) projects that by 2050, 7 out of 10 people will live in a city. This year, nearly 60 cities are part of the Urban Observatory, a noticeable leap from the 10 included in last year’s premiere. Its founders attribute the rapid increase to cities wanting to learn more about themselves and each other.

"A couple of years ago, [Esri founder and CEO] Jack Dangermond introduced a poster with the phrase ‘Understanding precedes action,’ which resonated with people," said Wurman. "Last year, the headline read, You Only Understand Something Relative to Something You Understand. This year, the theme—representing where we are today with the Urban Observatory—is Transforming Big Data to Big Understanding."

Participation in Urban Observatory is open to every city around the globe. Any city that has data its officials would like to share is eligible to be included. In February 2015, Urban Observatory will go on permanent display in the Smithsonian Institution.

"Now is the time for us to learn from each other and to understand this extraordinary and rapidly expanding globe of cities relative to one another," said Wurman. "It is key that these cities speak the same visual language. We can take the big data of these cities—the numbers that have to do with population, health and well-being, education, work, crime, money—and understand each other.

"This is the Urban Observatory."

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