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Low tech, big data

How we started Draw Rotterdam, and what we’re aiming at
Big data is big. Asking ten or twenty people for their opinions isn’t enough anymore. Never mind that Google Forms survey. Hundreds, millions(!) those are the numbers you’re looking at today.

Not just in our industry but, at least according to the blogs I read, soon in every industry ever. Or, in sales pitch terms: How are you empowering your organisation using the FULL POTENTIAL of big data analysis? Have you unlocked the TRANSFORMATIVE POWER of big data yet? Because if you don’t, you. are. missing. out. 😰

big_dataInterest in the term ‘Big Data’ over time since 2004. Itself produced by big data analysis of Google search queries.

So when the city of Rotterdam asked us to help them make their city center more legible, we asked ourselves: How can we keep doing what we’re good at, without missing out on unlocking THE FULL POTENTIAL of big data for our organisation!

No actually: How can we use big data to get an idea of how people read the city? Then we can figure out how to make the reading easier. Here’s what we came up with.

Mental Maps
Mental maps are a research method most prominently presented in 1960 by Kevin Lynch in his book ‘The Image of the City’. First shown to me a few years ago by David Hamers, my professor back then at Design Academy Eindhoven. Basically, it’s a method for data collection in which you ask your participants to draw a city map. From memory. Without any help, only the river Maas as a reference. For example, here’s my mental map of Rotterdam:

rotterdam_jaap_knevelMy mental map of Rotterdam, pretty ok right?

Then, after you’ve asked a dozen or so people, you layout the results. What are the similarities? And what are the differences? If you ask ten different people to draw a city from memory, you end up with ten completely different maps. For example: Some people think that the stadium is located over there. Other people think it’s in a completely different place. Some people didn’t even know there was a stadium in the first place! But what everybody seems to get right is the road that leads from the stadium to the Central Station.
It means that road is an important point of reference, maybe even more so than the stadium. Kevin Lynch did this for many cities, which he outlined in his book.

image_of_the_city_lynchLynch, Kevin (1960). The Image of the City. The MIT Press.

Now think about it this way: Let’s say a lot of money is about to be spent on promoting the location of the museum. But according to mental maps, 9 out of 10 people have no problem drawing its exact location from memory. Maybe, just saying, we can better spend that money on something else.

So — big data. Here’s the catch. Let’s take mental mapping, that low-tech method, and scale it. What if instead of asking a handful of people, we’re going to ask as many people as we can. And instead of keeping the maps for ourselves, we’re open sourcing them. For others to use, and for the everyone to see. We call it Draw Rotterdam.

Draw Rotterdam is an interactive research project, aimed to understand how people read the city of Rotterdam–so we can make the city more readable. For now, our aim is to collect data (mental maps) and exhibit that data (instagram). Next, our team, in collaborating with universities will aggregate the data in order to ‘draw’ conclusions from it. More on that in a later article. For now, get drawing! 📝👍🏼

Follow @drawrotterdam on Instagram.

Photo Copyright: @drawrotterdam