Imagine a world in which your digital footprint such as your tweets or use of online municipal services helps your city planners improve your city’s design and functionality.

Well, that’s exactly the direction in which the city of Chicago, Ill. is heading towards.

On Thursday, the Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF) kicked off its newest exhibition, “Chicago: City of Big Data.” The exhibit, created in partnership with IBM and the architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), aims to display a new perspective of the city, one made up of its residents’ digital trails and the city’s infrastructure. The exhibit is mainly made up of a large model of the city equipped with interactive tablets showcasing different overlays of data as well as the Chicago Dashboard. The latter consists of two large screens on the outside of the building, displaying a variety of real-time information related to the city’s functioning and its residents such as the weather, bus arrivals, and real-time tweets. The exhibit is housed at the Chicago Architecture Foundation in Chicago, Ill., and will be open for 18 months.

While urban planners have long used a wide variety of data and information in helping improve the built environment, digital data and infrastructure at this scale has only recently become available. With the rise in importance and presence of technology in people’s everyday lives, encompassing the study of local digital data and infrastructure can only provide a more complete picture of urban activity, needs, and possible solutions.

“[Data is] a raw material that designers aren’t sure how to handle yet,” SOM architectural associate and digital design leader Keith Besserud told VentureBeat in a recent interview.

Although big data, and especially big digital data, is a fairly new territory for urban planners, companies in health care, financial services, technology and many other sectors have been putting it to good use for quite some time now, and some of these companies will discuss the ways they’ve harnessed big data at our DataBeat conference in San Francisco next week.

Data trails

The team behind the exhibit selected its data sources using two criteria: The data’s availability at a large enough scale, and its capability to communicate valuable insights about the city’s needs and flows. The team then used complex geographic information system (GIS) and web-based tools to compile and visualize the data in effective ways.

The Twitter data, which the team obtained through the city’s Department of Technology and Innovation, consists of over 18 million data points. Although only the tweets’ timestamp and location were available to the team (not the content of the tweets), it was enough for the team to turn into dynamic and interactive models of city’s human activity.

“It’s a proxy for understanding where are people in the city, and beginning to understand why there might be activity/clustering” in certain places, Besserud said.

“A caveat for the Twitter data is that maybe there’s only certain demographics that tweet,” added SOM computational designer Matthew Shaxted.

Another set of data are 311 calls, which are requests for nonemergency city services such as road debris removal and parking law enforcement.

“One way of thinking of the 311 data is, ‘What do people care about or need in their city?’ You do see patterns of what individual neighborhoods need from the city,” Shaxted said.

Looking at which neighborhoods make fewer or no calls is also equally valuable to urban planners — it could be a signal that a certain neighborhood might need a different way to communicate its needs, rather than indicating a lack of problems.

The Divvy ride data can also provide insights about resident’s biking preferences, such as which renting stations are most active, what routes are most popular, and gender distributions across time of day and location. In the long term, this is valuable information, as it can signal whether certain areas are more or less friendly to bikes for example, and how city officials can work to improve or maximize certain areas.

“Data provides a critical lens for exploring and understanding the design issues that matter deeply to citizens, like community health, safety and sustainability,” said CAF’s curator of exhibitions and visitor engagement Ingrid Haftel in an official statement.

“Our goal in launching this exhibition is to open up a dialogue on the connection between big data and our lives and show not only how our surroundings are impacted by this information, but also how relevant each individual is to the design of their environment,” she added.

The two large dashboard screens will be located on both street-facing sides of the building, and will display a wide range of information including a Twitter feed, weather updates, train and bus arrivals, new construction permits, and even real estate prices per neighborhood among other things.

The dashboards were built with IBM’s City Forward platform, a “free web-based platform developed and powered by IBM as a civic resource that enables people to visualize and interact with city data while engaging with a community of people who are passionate about the future of our cities,” according to IBM Interactive Experience’s North American lead, John Armstrong.

Along with digital data, the exhibition also showcases and utilizes the city’s infrastructure such as sensors that record air quality, cameras that monitor public safety, and even cell towards and Internet infrastructure.

Haftel added that they’re “working on developing a walking tour to show people this infrastructure” in the near future.

Data literacy

Though they were mostly preoccupied with preparing for a smooth opening day for the exhibition, the team shared that they’ve already begun to speculate about what they could do with the work they built beyond the exhibition and have been in touch with local urban planning organizations and research groups.

“We know that things are rapidly changing, there are already discussions about what can add,” said Haftel.

“One of the points we’re trying to pull out is that data literacy … is or will be a vital skill to being a city dweller,” said Besserud.

Shaxten also pointed out the implications this could have on the “future of deliverables.” Someday, instead of sharing finite books or reports in paper form or even digital files, tools like these could enable professionals to use “living documents” for their research and work.

Although a unique exhibition, this is not the only case of analyzing environmental digital data and signals. Hudson Yards in Manhattan, a planned major mixed-used real estate project, will be outfitted with sensors and free wi-fi to give residents and workers.

This is also not the first time IBM has shown interest in urban planning. In February, it announced that it will be joining forces with AT&T to leverage the so-called Internet of things to help with urban problems such as traffic and emergency vehicle routes.