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October 10, 2016

Visualizing Place Analytics: Big Data, Smart Cities, and the Question of Democracy

October 10, 2016 | By | No Comments

                This last week, we discussed Geospatial visualization tools to aid the creation, display, and emphasis of geospatial analytics. As a researcher of the rhetoric of place and space, that is, the communicative relationship between citizens and locales, I’ve been eager for ways to represent the various forms of this relationship digitally. Being your about average digitally literate citizen, I immediately thought of Google Maps and its standard use as representative of what geospatial tools could do. So if I were to present research on the dominant revolutionary narrative of Cairo’s Tahrir Square, for instance, toggling between Google Map’s Street and Roadmap views, could visually demonstrate material influences: the landmarks, layout of political buildings, and topography, so forth, alongside a discussion of how these spaces are “socially crafted” through behavioral acts.

For your average user, Google Maps’ ability to visualize and navigate the material domains of space means it wouldn’t upfront tell us much about social and political dynamics of a site. This made it easier for scholars like myself to simplify the use of the interface to represent the material. However, great strides in geospatial software and Big Data, in general, mean that analytics on locales have the potential of revealing much much more. I refer mostly to how Big Data has contributed to the creation of Smart Cities, cities wherein sensors gather, analyze, and interpret large sets of data to track anything from resource consumption, traffic rates, Wifi availability, to even grants for the arts. Talk about your options for visualizing certain place-based analytics! By combining a series of metrics, a “CityScore” can indicate a city’s overall health, and cities such as Boston, Chicago, and New York have already begun to rely on Big Data’s ability to represent place to improve efficiency, resources, and the engagement of citizens.
Though Smart Cities are still a relatively new way of ‘visualizing’ place, discussions of its benefits are rolling in. Though its ability to make cities more efficient is obvious, there have also been insights as to its democratic benefits. Place data from city-wide sensors could allow more equitable distribution of resources among poor and rich neighborhoods, and as The Economist predicts, could have allowed a quicker response to prolonged tragedies such as Flint’s water crisis.
The idea of Smart Cities links Big Data with an improved democratic infrastructure. However, in the same way that citizens can ‘supposedly’ be self-governing in a democracy, could they do the same in an ever-growing and changing digital universe of Big Data?
A large part of the democratic challenges involves the digital citizens to be informed users, particularly from Big Data privacy issues. Big data breaches aside, Jonathan Obar (2015) asserts that the individual’s limited time to educate themselves on multiple terms of service statements, private policies, and hidden data brokers combined with the rapid evolution of Big Data, as well as its lack of transparency make it nearly impossible to be an informed digital citizen. This limitation on privacy and knowledge has already bit back at Smart Cities’ data access as Seattle’s citizens have protested against tracking methods, thus leading to the implementation of data-protection officers.
The ability of digital tools to represent more than material space is quickly becoming an alarming reality. As a researcher in place/space, I’m excited for this more robust view of place dynamics. Furthermore, what is done with that data can have amazing results in the hands of the right people, but individual consent and say in its use may still remain an afterthought to innovation.


Goldsmith, S. (2015). “Protecting Big Data.” Data Smart City Solutions. Retrieved from

“How Cities Score.” (2016). The Economist. Retrieved from

Obar, J. A. (2015). “Big Data and The Phantom Public: Walter Lippmann and the Fallacy of Data Privacy Self-Management.” Big Data & Society (2015):1-16. Doi: 10.1177/2053951715608876

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