Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.
An architect talks about her data maps of urban conflict from Brooklyn to Aleppo.
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We have entered a period of intense fascination with data visualization. Whether we are speaking of electoral college predictions in the United States, maps of border regions in Latin America that track change over time, or diagrams of environmental health risks in sub-Saharan Africa, the ease with which datasets can be accessed and then reframed and represented for maximum interpretation and comprehension is one consequence of the digital age that is quickly transforming what public discourse looks and feels like, how it gets made, and how it is conducted. The most useful of these strategies, arguably, are those that highlight elements of daily existence around the planet that would otherwise go unnoticed. The Center for Spatial Research describes itself as “a hub for urban research that links design, architecture, urbanism, the humanities, and data science.” Housed at Columbia University’s Graduate School for Architecture, Planning and Preservation and led by architect-theorist-artist Laura Kurgan, the CSR is at the forefront of a movement to situate data visualization at the heart of an interdisciplinary academic context working in a social justice framework and linked to an increasingly complex network of groups, advocates, and affiliated players. To discuss the activities of the CSR, I met with Kurgan just prior to the live launch of a major undertaking entitled Conflict Urbanism: Aleppo, an interactive mapping project.
Noah Chasin How did you first get involved in using information-mapping technologies? Was that something that came out of your training?
Laura Kurgan Yes and no. When I graduated from architecture school, digital technologies were just arriving in the profession—and people were using them to design all sorts of new shapes and structures in their buildings. But architects are trained to do a lot of different things, not just design buildings. I had read something about Global Positioning Systems that became operational as both military and civilian technology at the same time. GPS captured my imagination, because it described a technology that was about inhabiting a digital space at multiple scales. I’ve always been more on the visual studies side of architecture—perhaps as defined by the Bauhaus in Germany or György Kepes at MIT—where scientific experiments that produce new modes of representation and new methods for seeing cities or space had a big influence on how you design them. After reading about GPS in 1991, I decided I had to get my hands on a GPS receiver. It wasn’t making maps that got me going in this direction; it was that this technology was locational, mobile, and allowed one to inhabit a digital environment at the same time as a physical one.
NC What was the genesis of the Center for Spatial Research?
LK The center was established in 2015 after a ten-year history as the Spatial Information Design Lab. What’s known as Geographic Information Systems—making maps with data—usually belongs in the realm of geography, but there’s no geography department at Columbia University. Since no one else was doing it, we did. And, given that spatial research and knowledge about cities is an expertise of architects, urban planners, and designers, it made sense to create a place for this sort of work within the architecture school. The new mission of the center is to build on this history and construct bridges between the data-centric sciences, social sciences, and the humanities. We do a lot of training, but the focus is really on developing a critical account of and practice in spatial technologies. We are asking questions about how these methods, maps, and data work, rather than simply assuming they are the most efficient or most accurate tools for telling us the truth about the world, whether scientifically or socially. Bringing architecture, data science, and the humanities together around these questions and testing them through real-world projects with meaningful political and ethical stakes is an ideal matrix for this. We don’t just stand at a distance and ask questions. It’s only interesting to us if we use the best equipment and data available, and put them into play on issues that matter.
NC What was the trajectory of the Spatial Information Design Lab and now, the Center for Spatial Research? You had success with some pretty significant and powerful projects.
LK Our Million Dollar Blocks project was the one that really established the lab in 2006. We led an intensive investigation of “million dollar blocks,” that is, we documented, mapped, and developed communication and visualization strategies for a complex urban phenomenon, namely, the fact that the majority of incarcerated people in many major American cities come disproportionately from a very few neighborhoods—and mostly poor neighborhoods of color. The costs of incarceration in these neighborhoods are so high that millions of state dollars are spent imprisoning people from single city blocks. The essence of our research was to access and work with vast state-by-state databases that are used to track prisoners, and then repurpose that information in order to uncover and display previously hidden social and political conditions in our cities. Rather than looking at where crimes are committed, we looked at where prisoners live, and the maps that resulted showed the urban costs of incarceration and suggested how those dollars might be better spent on investing in communities. These analyses were linked to national research and advocacy efforts on the one hand, and local planning and policy initiatives on the other. Our primary discovery was that the “crime mapping” tools the New York Police Department was using were part of the problem rather than part of the solution. We were still making maps, and doing it with government data, but the stories that they told completely upended the prevailing narrative about crime and prison.
NC Was social justice always such a strong component of what you set out to do? Most people don’t necessarily understand data as being in the service of that, but that’s where your lab has made a sizeable contribution.
LK I never saw any reason why the other guys should have all the good tools. I got interested in GPS, and then in high-resolution satellite imagery, and I followed along as these technologies were declassified and commercialized. They went from being purely the property of the military and the intelligence agencies to becoming something like utilities. I engaged them with caution, as they were obviously powerful—but it seemed like a shame to ignore or waste them. The challenge was to learn how to do something different with them, how to put them to better use.
NC All of the tools that you use are available to anybody. It’s not like you’re leveraging any special relationships that you might have. There’s something very powerful about the revelation that this material is universally accessible.
LK Since we’re talking about high-resolution satellite imagery, yes, with the right credit card.
LK After the Million Dollar Blocks project, we started to experiment with social media, which has become a new arena for data mapping. You have to remember, it was really only in 2011 or 2012 that the term data visualization entered the broad public consciousness. Big data really became a thing after the launch of Facebook in 2004, of Twitter in 2006, and of the iPhone in 2007. In Jumping the Great Firewall (2014), a project dealing with Weibo, China’s social media behemoth, we looked at the creation of an activist space in one of the most censored networks in the world. It was more a data-visualization project than a mapping project, but it had a spatial component. Basically, Chinese activists knew that the government was using algorithms to censor their messages, so they would take pictures of their posts that algorithms couldn’t automatically detect—sometimes called “Long Weibo”—and send these around. The messages would then spread, and a human censor would have to find them.
At the lab, we did a short two-week project tracking these suppressed posts. First, we just stored all of these image posts, and then we developed an algorithm that could scrape the Weibo feeds to see whether something had been deleted. Afterward, we discarded everything except the messages that had been censored. Our archive preserves all the censored posts in their original form.
NC And when you say “we”…
LK I always work in collaborative teams with incredible researchers in the center, as well as outside collaborators. This work is the result of a large team. Nowadays, we do a lot of small projects. For instance, we did one about #blacklivesmatter and President Obama’s State of the Union address in 2015. A data visualization by Twitter showed all the categories that people were searching for during the speech, topics like jobs, healthcare, and defense. We had already been collecting all the #blacklivesmatter tweets because we wanted to spatialize them. That part of the project turned out to be a failure; not enough people geotag their tweets. But what we found instead during the State of the Union was that a lot of people using #blacklivesmatter were complaining, “When is Obama going to mention Black Lives Matter?” or, “Extremely disappointed there was not mention of #blacklivesmatter in #SOTU.” Perhaps it’s not very surprising that these tweets didn’t show up as a major category in the Twitter visualizations. In effect, we found a gap in what was trending in the #SOTU feed, because we had been collecting this information for another reason, though we didn’t really know at the time what sentiments we would be collecting.
NC Your most recent project focuses on the city of Aleppo, which is at the center of fighting today in Syria. The interactive map and a series of case studies building upon it recently went live. Can we discuss the difficulties in accumulating research at a moment of intensified warfare?
LK Sure. As you know, Aleppo is sadly back in the news as the target of an extensive bombing campaign by the Russian and Syrian militaries. It’s the largest city in Syria, one of the oldest in the world, and a major center of opposition to the Assad regime. The project began as an attempt to follow a war in real time, which is challenging to do from a distance. The opposition to Assad has controlled a lot of territory in the city and its surroundings, so the conflict there is radically altering the city. It is dividing, destroying, and depopulating what is, in fact, also an important, historic, and diverse city. It’s a radical example of what we are calling “conflict urbanism.” We’re interested in how conflicts of all sorts, not just war, make, unmake, and remake urban spaces.
Although we are pursuing the Aleppo project from a distance, we are not dispassionate about it. The way the city is being remapped today—if I can put it in this way—is a catastrophe, a crime of historic proportions. It’s clear who’s responsible, and it’s the result of a political project—of a couple of political projects—that need to be stopped. But the fact of this calamity cannot stop us from trying to understand and represent it. Conflict urbanism is about justice as a general category and about the inequalities—visible and hidden—that structure cities today. With Aleppo we’ve been looking at the patterns of damage over the scope of the war, but also at the conditions prior to the outbreak of violent conflict that might have set up the patterns we are seeing today. More than one expert could have predicted last year that the east side of Aleppo is the part that would be so badly damaged.
NC What’s at stake for you in undertaking this project?
LK Our approach to understanding the urban-conflict landscape was to create a web-based map of Aleppo that is browsable at a neighborhood level and to which we’ve added different layers of data. You can zoom in and out to study it. It’s like Google Maps, but we designed an interface around an open-source mapping program, Mapbox, and have used open-source geospatial data from OpenStreetMap, which allows us to style the maps in our own way, incorporate multiple datasets, and bring our own concerns and interpretations to them.
For instance, if you open up the map and just look at the OpenStreetMap layer, you’ll notice the government-controlled western part of the city is fully mapped and the east is not. The east has a lot of denser, so-called informal neighborhoods, so maybe it’s not mapped because the streets are too small and difficult to map. But part of the reason might also be political. We found it impossible to ignore the coincidence that the portions of the city that are less mapped are also the neighborhoods now most damaged.
We have four separate satellite images: one from 2012, before the war; one from 2014, when there was some major bombing; and then one each from 2015 and 2016. We are trying to update them frequently. The imagery we’re using is in 0.5 meter resolution per pixel, a very high resolution, and you can browse it online at up to 1: 500 scale, which means you can see things in astonishing detail. There have been many amazing maps done by the New York Times, the Guardian, and other news outlets, but they don’t allow for this level of detail, or the ability to look at any neighborhood over this time period.
NC These satellite images are ones that you purchased?
LK Yes, we bought three from DigitalGlobe and one from Pleiades, the European satellite image vendor. When we were looking for a 2015 image, for some reason we couldn’t buy it from DigitalGlobe. Who knows why? In this world, there are all kinds of idiosyncratic things that happen, which nobody can explain. You know an image has been taken, but it’s not in the catalog for purchase. I know I sometimes sound optimistic about the new commercial imagery landscape, but it’s not always that simple for civilians to purchase the imagery in real time. These are geopolitical conversations to which few citizens have access.
NC In other projects, you’ve worked on the idea of an emerging yet hidden data omniscience of sorts, where certain information exists, but for various political reasons, it remains unavailable or disappears.
LK And then it reappears a few months later when it’s less sensitive or something. These four satellite images on our map are different from what you can see on Google Earth, where you can (sometimes) use the history button to pull up old images, but you never know the specific date or exactly which satellite took the picture. They don’t supply that information. Our map allows you to track the images over time.
NC Is your map of the entire city?
LK Yes, and we have overlaid UNOSAT data onto it. UNOSAT is the UN satellite imagery agency. Experts pore over satellite images and identify damage sites, then make that information public. We’ve also worked with Human Rights Watch, which has created a dataset of the Syrian government’s barrel bomb attacks. We haven’t been able to display that data, though, and the reasons are instructive. Although the layers of the map are generated independently, their visual language invites comparison. Different layers of data are created in different ways, and for entirely different reasons. Overlaying them on the standard grid that the map necessarily imposes can lead to misleading comparisons. People often think that layers of a map simply add facts. In reality, each layer is a story about its own dataset. Although they can complement each other, and although they are all showing the same place, they can give the impression of presenting a complete truth, when, in fact, they cannot do that. We are still searching for a mapping language that can harness these divergent datasets in a way that says, “It’s not all here, but let’s look at this and explore.”
NC When you accumulate data like the UNOSAT or Human Rights Watch material, you’re not necessarily acquiring it with a preconceived notion of what you’re going to find, correct?
LK That’s right. The data and the images are not illustrations—they are research, ways of discovering things about the world. For example, if we had not made this map, we wouldn’t have seen clear patterns of damage—the ways in which the attacks are so disproportionately targeting certain neighborhoods in Aleppo. Now you can zoom in and look at this or that neighborhood in particular. So, for instance, we looked at the Sheikh Sa’eed neighborhood, and there’s a lot of barrel bomb damage there in a completely residential area. Bomb craters are clearly visible.
Think of data as a navigation device. It’s not the Truth. Sometimes, people worry about our interest in satellite images not because of their military origins, although that is sometimes an issue, but because of the apparently compromised epistemology. “Why the overhead view? Are you aspiring to a view from nowhere?”
NC So how do you answer that question?
LK My book, Close Up at a Distance: Mapping, Technology, Politics, takes that on and argues that when you actually work with these images and the data embedded in them, the truth becomes more complicated. It’s obviously not from nowhere. What people think of as being flat, I call multidimensional. Because all satellite images incorporate time, and they also allow you to zoom in. Once you start aligning all the different layers on top of each other, you can navigate your way toward certain things on the ground.
We hurried to prepare this map in time for a seminar I was teaching last spring, where it served as a provocation for research about the war in Syria. It was tricky. It was right in the middle of the conflict, and the students all wanted to go to the ground to see what was happening. We are in New York, and it’s too dangerous to go to Aleppo, so they improvised. They did it through YouTube. The map was there, and it provoked very different kinds of research. There are five or six useful Aleppo news YouTube channels, including the Aleppo Media Center, which produced the famous image of the boy in the ambulance, and the so-called White Helmets, who show us disasters in nearly real time. The satellite image is never alone.
NC It must be difficult to sustain detailed work on a site that is constantly in flux, even by the minute. How do you identify and then index the changes?
LK We have been working with Jamon Van Den Hoek, a geographer who has developed a clever strategy for using Landsat imagery—free low-resolution imagery, fifteen meters per pixel—to identify possible locations that are undergoing significant changes. Every two weeks during the war, he generated a “change map” highlighting the pixels that had changed in Aleppo. The patterns and intensities of transformation were apparent. Then we followed those clues and used them to guide a more detailed investigation with high-resolution imagery. They led us to certain areas, like Castello Road and some of the eastern neighborhoods, and we found a lot of destroyed bridges and other damage from aerial attacks, leading us to focus further research on those parts of the city. We’re making a wartime map of Aleppo that will become an archive of the city’s destruction.
NC Do you have any sense that the US military is doing projects similar to yours using the same data that you have access to?
LK They’re definitely using it. I hope they have better data! Or, rather, I hope they share it. The question is what they do with it. We’d like to do a case study about the three hospitals in Aleppo that were bombed recently. There’s no excuse for bombing hospitals, especially when their locations are clearly identified and communicated to the warring parties. It’s a human rights violation, a war crime. In the past week, there have definitely been crimes of war. Until recently, it’s been harder to prove who did it. Human Rights Watch tried to do it with the barrel bombs. But now there’s an island in east Aleppo with no access to food or water. Another water tower was destroyed the other day.
NC Who’s going to take advantage of this information once it’s available online?
LK It’s my hope that, over time, this map will become a resource and more people will use it and perhaps collaborate with us. But the ethics and politics of this are very complicated. We are trying to guard against doing something in support of the civic opposition that inadvertently gets turned against them and what they’re defending. For example, we are making a list of destroyed heritage sites, and we have a layer in the map that locates them. We also have a layer on the map based on a list published by the State Department of 241 prewar cultural sites. Comparing them is powerful. But it’s also dangerous, so we’ve switched off that layer of the map online for now to protect against it becoming an easy list of future targets.
NC The ideological component of your project is very reciprocal. You’re getting this information freely—mostly—and then aggregating it. Sharing the project with users seems like a logical progression for your approach.
LK Yes, I do hope that others will contribute to it—but the success or failure of our project does not depend on that. We are interested in the future of Aleppo and will document our ideas on that as well. I would love to say that, as an architect and planner, I’m going to participate and fight for a more equitable city, but that all depends on the politics and the outcome of the war. I hope that we don’t in the end simply document something similar to what has happened in Beirut, for example, where developers have taken over the city’s reconstruction with buildings that have no relevance to the memory of the war, or to the current population. In this context, we have to remember as well that, just before the war began, the Old City of Aleppo had undergone a restoration and replanning. The center of the city was redesigned in order to attract global tourism rather than foster local cultural activities.
NC As you said earlier, conflict isn’t necessarily a negative consequence of urbanism but rather an inevitable one.
LK Yes, it’s a category that describes any city. There are no cities without conflict. They’re always in one sort of crisis or another. Politics are often about producing conflict and crisis, shattering the tranquility of consensus—especially the silence and complacency of authoritarian rule. The young democratic activists in Syria who took on the regime wanted a conflict—the tragedy and crime of what happened is that their government refused any sort of political engagement and turned to violence.
NC What’s next on your urban conflict agenda?
LK In our next project, Conflict Urbanism: Language Justice, we are collaborating with professors at the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia. We’ll be looking at micro-neighborhoods in New York where specific languages are spoken. It’s a well-known fact that ninety-six percent of the world’s languages are spoken by three percent of its people. There are databases that track critically endangered and extinct languages in some of the most ecologically biodiverse parts of the world, like the Amazon or tropical rainforests in Indonesia. We have done some work visualizing that fact in a project called Exit, in 2008, and again in 2015. Through this collaboration with linguists we are learning that because of migration to cities, endangered languages are, in some cases, being revived.
NC That’s amazing.
LK It is. Organizations and scholars are starting to understand that through cell phones and text messages and other technology, languages are being saved. In other words, we’re looking at potentially positive conflict, or positive outcomes of conflict—and that’s really exciting and refreshing.
Noah Chasin teaches the history and theory of urban design at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. He is also affiliated faculty at Columbia’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. His writing has appeared in Artforum, the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Art Journal, and Springerin. He was featured in Gary Hustwit’s 2011 documentary film, Urbanized.
Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.