Insights on the works of the Civic Data Design Lab @ MIT

Last week at re:publica (one of the world’s most important events concerning the topic of the “digital society”) in Berlin, Sarah Williams gave a talk about “Big Data for a Public Good – Design our Urban Future with Civic Tech”. We had the chance to attend the presentation and to experience some great examples of how #opendata can change the world bit by bit.

Sarah is the director of the Civic Data Design Lab of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Trained as a geographer, landscape architect and urban planner, her work combines geographic analysis and design. Using different sources of open data, she and her team help others turn data into information to e.g. validate public infrastructure, improve people’s living and working conditions, and hence drive the use of open data for public good.

The "#opendata /dataviz manifesto" by Sarah Williams

The “#opendata /dataviz manifesto”


Locating, tracking and mapping Matatus

One very successful endeavour in this category was the “Digital Matatus Project” in Nairobi. Matatus are small privately owned minivans functioning as collective taxis which vital to the city’s inhabitants as means to get around. The main problem here was that no one had an overview of all available Matatu routes – people relied on local information and the official data was hard to get and not very comprehensible.

In a collaborative effort, the University of Nairobi and the Civic Data Design Lab dug through all official papers of the city council regarding Matatus. In addition they crowdsourced data of routes and stops by asking travelers and drives and letting students ride the minibuses throughout the city equipped with cellphones and GPS devices. All information was collected and ingested into an open data format that could than be analysed further. This led to the creation of a comprehensive (and beautiful) transit map, allowing for the first time for an overview of all Matatu routes, several routing-apps for passengers as well as improvement for all citizens relying on these ‘unofficial’ public transit vehicles.

The resulting map of the Digital Matatus Project

The resulting map of the Digital Matatus Project


Transforming data into actions

In her presentation, Sarah then showed more projects, that worked in a similar fashion, using different methods of collecting data and improving city life. What was most interesting was not just how the data was collected in each of these example projects, but how the data was actually transformed into something useful and readable. It is this step that allows people to understand the underlying issues and to derive the necessary actions from it, like adding new bus routes to the city grid or rethinking a zoning plan for city industry branches.

But with all this data, Sarah concluded, one should not forget the most important aspect in these projects: That is to include all stakeholders, from the city council, to NGOs and the people affected by the issues. Only then is it possible to get conclusive data and build relevant scenarios for everyone.

If you are interested in the talk, want to see the examples presented directly by Sarah herself and hear more about her “data manifesto”, you can find the talk below.




About the author : Tilman Wagner (DW)