October 30, 2017

Saba Golchehr. Design from the Inside-out: Critically Adopting Big Data Methods

by Z33

Designers should be aware both of what is lost if they ignore new digital tools, and of the implications of uncritically appropriating big data technologies. This has occurred before in the uncritical acceptance of participatory approaches in the design and development of public space.

Text Saba Golchehr

The emergence of Big Data and data mining has provoked a large debate on the role of data collection and analysis in many fields (Anderson, 2008; Bollier, 2010; Kitchin, 2014; Mayer-Schönberger & Cukier, 2013). Within the architectural profession it has resulted in two distinctive attitudes towards these new advances. Some architectural practices praise technology and adopt Big Data — often uncritically — to inform their design projects, while others reject computer-mediated approaches entirely and take an antagonistic stance towards a technology dominated society and environment.

Learning from — and adopting — Big Data technologies enable opportunities for architectural and urban designers to discover new kinds of agency in today’s data-governed world when designing for the public realm, and particularly when designing public spaces. This is not a rejection of the value of embodying a critical position, but a suggestion that this criticality is used to intervene from within existing systems and infrastructures. Instead of condemning new digital developments entirely, more designers could adopt new digital tools to help enable different outcomes. Instead of merely reacting to a situation, they could engage with and change situations they find socially unjust and/or unacceptable. However, such a pro-active attitude requires designers to learn and understand the rules of the data game prior to engaging with it.

Resisting new technologies

Current uses of Big Data technologies are primarily driven by neoliberal forces, where data mining enables companies to learn about our spending patterns, social relations, and so on, through opaque algorithms with the purpose to increase their profits (e.g. Amazon, Facebook, Wal-Mart) (Burrel, 2016; O’Neill, 2016). This capitalist use of technology has raised resistance in many critical disciplines, including architecture. Some architects use resistance to recast today’s ‘Big Brother’ society and aim to challenge and ultimately change this reality. Criticality and resistance however are not the only — and often not the most effective — approaches to change a state of affairs. In fact, adapting to altering realities — instigated by advances in industrial and technological systems — and adopting new technologies to operate critically within these systems has enabled the architectural discipline to advance. In the early 20th century, industrialisation and mass production influenced designers to explore standardisation. Information technologies used during the war opened up new design imaginaries on communication and information in networked urban settings. Architecture is an ever-evolving discipline that needs constant re-evaluating and repositioning in order to survive and remain relevant within a dynamic society. Critical and adversarial approaches (i.e. through activism) challenge this necessity, while adopting or ‘hijacking’ modern technologies allows architects to accept new realities and explore ways to redirect — instead of reject — the status quo (Lyster, 2016).

Uncritically adopting new technologies

At the other end of the spectrum we find architectural practices that have started to adopt data mining as a method to inform their design strategies. However, both architectural practitioners and researchers often put too much emphasis on the technology and lose sight of their critical position as architects within these processes. Designers should be aware both of what is lost if they ignore new digital tools, and of the implications of uncritically appropriating Big Data technologies, which can result in various (unintended) externalities. This has occurred before in the uncritical acceptance of participatory approaches in the design and development of public space, where citizen engagement has often become instrumentalised to legitimise the reduction of state resources and responsibilities. Or they have led to ephemeral architectural interventions in public space that ultimately contributed to rising land and property values — transforming designers into often unwilling agents of gentrification.

While large amounts of data on users can certainly be valuable in public space research and design, a more critical reflection is needed regarding what kind of data is used and for what purposes. Currently, (real-time) data on how people use public space consists either of data collected by mobile phone tracking and sensors (e.g. parking sensors, congestion charge zones, public transportation cards, etc.) informing us of how and when people move through the city, or by social media data, informing us of what people say (and feel) about a place. These types of data, however, cover only two aspects of the vast data landscape that is available. Architects could take a critical position and question whether the data they use to inform their approaches truly serves the quality and values of the public realm. Does this data show whether a public space is truly public, can they tell who is included or excluded, and can they show how communities take ownership of these spaces?

I propose a different source of data to learn about this missing layer of engagement in public space: data produced through ‘civic applications’. Civic applications — or civic ‘apps’ — are digital technologies developed to mediate different aspects of public life in the built environment between (local) councils, private actors and the public. Some examples of such digital applications are Fix My Street, Street Bump and Adopt-a-Hydrant 1. Over the last years, an increasing number of civic apps have been developed to support citizen participation in public space. In my research, I explore what kind of data is produced by such platforms, and study how it can be of use when exploring issues of civic empowerment and emancipation in design for citizen engagement in public space. I propose that such data can potentially inform designers in developing socially sustainable spaces that enable citizens to appropriate and take ownership of their environments.

Civic apps

Civic applications aim primarily to encourage citizens to participate in the design and development of their environments, and ultimately to increase citizens’ social capital. Moreover, due to the ideologically driven desire to diminish the role of the state — and therefore its costs — through increased citizen engagement (e.g. the ‘Big Society’ in the United Kingdom or the ‘Participation Society’ in the Netherlands), city governments are welcoming such technological means of promoting civic participation.

Accordingly, over the last decade, digital civic platforms have allowed citizens to identify and map problems and/or propose solutions to issues in their environment in order to promote action from (city) councils (De Lange & De Waal, 2013). Such civic apps are a potential source of currently untapped information on citizens and communities engaged in the development and sustaining of local environments. In order to extract knowledge from the (meta-)data of such applications, designers need to become familiar with these apps and the data they generate. I will illustrate such an approach through a case study I conducted at the tech start-up firm Commonplace.


Commonplace case study

Commonplace is a social enterprise that has developed a digital application to engage citizens in local developments in their neighbourhood. This tech startup has developed an online app for community consultation, which collects qualitative data from local citizens and provides this data to their clients: public and private property developers, housing associations, local councils and self-organised citizens in Neighbourhood Forums 2. With their digital platform Commonplace tries to tackle traditional approaches to community consultation, where methods such as public hearings, community forums and town meetings often reach only a small sample of the community. Digital technologies such as the Commonplace tool enable citizens to engage in a consultation process without the obligation to be physically present at set hours in a set location. The Commonplace app offers an online platform where citizens can share comments about their neighbourhood and/or communicate their feedback on design proposals for their local environment. Clients using this tool receive regular updates on the consultation process through an online dashboard presenting them with a summary of the number of comments posted, the number of visitors to the platform, a list of all users’ comments and a demographic profile of users that registered to the platform.

Users who wish to place a comment first have to sign up by filling out their name, email address and a password. When an account is created, users are presented with some questions on their age, gender, ethnicity, ownership status, and so on. The user can choose if they like to provide this data to Commonplace. Commonplace does not offer this data to their clients directly, but uses it anonymously to provide their clients with a general profile of users in their projects (e.g. x percentage of users are between the age of 30-40). This data is currently not used for further investigation into the consultation processes.

By examining Commonplace’s datasets, and comparing these to matching census data on neighbourhood residents, I studied whether community members involved in the consultation process through the digital application were a representative sample of the local neighbourhood. In this exploration, I compared the numbers on age, ethnicity and ownership in the Commonplace datasets to the United Kingdom government’s open datasets on local demographics. Comparing the data for six Commonplace projects resulted in the following conclusions:

  • Residents between the ages of 50-59 (in five of the six projects) and 40-49 (in four of the six projects) were overrepresented in the community consultation process.
  • Residents between the ages of 20-24 (in five of the six projects) and 25-29 (in four of the six projects) were underrepresented in the consultation.
  • Residents of a White ethnic background (in three of the four projects) were overrepresented in the consultation.
  • Residents of an Asian ethnicity (in all four projects) and of a Black ethnicity (in three of the four projects) were underrepresented in the consultation.
  • In all three projects homeowners were overrepresented, while renters were underrepresented in the consultation.


Analysis of Commonplace data compared to ONS census data

This analysis reveals that the Commonplace app offers empirical evidence of a democratic deficit in community consultation: evidence that shows that there are clearly some groups that are excluded from existing decision-making processes. The start-up firm is now developing a beta-version of the app in which this feature will be incorporated in the dashboards they offer their clients. This way their clients will be able to get real-time feedback on the consultation process, which enables them to alter their promotion and communication strategies during the consultation period. Ideally this will allow them to reach a wider and more representative demographic, and therefore empower politically marginalised groups — that are currently excluded from decision-making processes — by including them in the consultation process.

Finally, the case study illustrates that adopting prevailing technologies can result in strategic interventions that attempt to alter situations from within. As with most data-driven technologies, the development of digital tools from social enterprises such as Commonplace is primarily directed by capitalist forces: the firm needs to be profitable in order to survive, therefore the software developments are primarily focused on serving the market — i.e. the paying clients. Through adopting new technologies, designers can intervene and promote alternative courses in such developments and enable more democratic outcomes. In the Commonplace example, the intervention has resulted in the development of a feature that supports democratisation of the community consultation process. It has therefore helped to steer the output of the existing technology in a slightly different direction, and aims at restoring equilibrium in the development of such tools to serve both the community as well as the market. Moreover, analysing the Commonplace datasets revealed which community members are more actively engaged in the development of their local environment and which members are excluded from current decision-making processes. For architects and other socially engaged designers this data can be of value for attempting to empower ignored community members by developing alternative strategies aimed at increasing inclusiveness in participatory mechanisms, or for acting on behalf of the excluded in decision-making processes. Furthermore, this data can help designers identify communities that are more likely to engage in — and take ownership of — their local environments, which can help safeguard the social sustainability of designs proposals for local public spaces 3.

New digital tools like data mining do not have to be foregrounded within the architectural discipline, but they are useful instruments that enable alternative approaches and interventions aimed at serving the public. It is however crucial that architects remain critical of their role and agency in shaping the built environment — and try to avoid becoming instrumentalised to reinforce exploitative systems — when adopting Big Data, participatory, temporary, or any other ‘state-of-the-art’ approaches. •

The article was originally published in a book ‘Trading Places – Practices of Public Participation in Art and Design Research’ (DPR Barcelona), published in September 2017. ‘Trading Places’ rethinks, develops and tests design-driven practices and methods to engage with participation in public space and public issues.
The book follows ‘TRADERS – Training Art and Design Researchers in Participation for Public Space,’ an EU-funded project (2013–17) that focuses on developing a methodological framework for participatory work in public space projects. Z33 House for Contemporary Art is one of the cultural and academic partners of the programme.
DPR Barcelona: Traders – Practices of Public Participation
TRADERS programme (2013–17)

Anderson, C. (2008). The end of theory: The data deluge makes the scientific method obsolete. Wired. Retrieved 14 March, 2014.
Bollier, D. (2010). The promise and peril of big data. Washington: Aspen Institute.
Burrell, J. (2016). How the machine ‘thinks’: Understanding opacity in machine learning algorithms. Big Data & Society, 3(1), 1-12.
De Lange, M., & De Waal, M. (2013). Owning the city: New media and citizen engagement in urban design. First Monday. 18(11). Retrieved 8 February, 2015.
Kitchin, R. (2014). Big Data, new epistemologies and paradigm shifts. Big Data & Society. 1(1), 1-12.
Lyster, C. (2016, March). Logistical hijack. Volume #47 *The System, 61-64.
Mayer-Schönberger, V., & Cukier, K. (2013). Big data: A revolution that will transform how we live, work and think. London: John Murray.
O’Neil, C. (2016). Weapons of math destruction: How big data increases inequality and threatens democracy. London: Allen Lane.


Saba Golchehr is a PhD researcher at the Royal College of Art in the School of Architecture and a Research Fellow in the EU Marie Curie project ‘TRADERS – Training Art and Design Researchers for Participation in Public Space.’ Her research questions how designers can find new agency within the digital data deluge in today’s cities by critically adopting a data-driven approach in order to instigate social change, restore power equilibriums and increase democracy in the design and development of the built environment. She holds a BSc in Architecture and a MSc in Urbanism (Spatial Planning and Strategy) from Delft University of Technology, where she graduated with distinction, with an awarded thesis on empowering marginalised communities in urban regeneration through participation in public space.