| Students from the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment survey an urban garden located on an abandoned lot in Detroit. |Credit: Flickr user “snre.” Used under Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).
You hear it all the time: The age of “Big Data” is upon us. Ubiquitous sensors, mobile devices, and computer software endlessly collect information, adding up to form an unfathomably immense mass of information to be used in all sorts of ways. For some, “Big Data” calls to mind privacy concerns and the NSA; others will likely first think of tech giants like Facebook and Google. But Big Data isn’t used exclusively for surveillance and isn’t owned exclusively by for-profit companies and stealthy state intelligence agencies.
Big Data is undoubtedly bringing about major changes worldwide, influencing our responses to challenges of climate change, human genomics, and traffic congestion. Big Data has local impacts as well. It can serve as a tool for improving communities or for understanding the power of older buildings. Here’s a quick primer on Big Data and how it can support preservation.
What Is Big Data?
In 2012 a New York Times primer
on the subject suggested that Big Data is “a meme and a marketing term, for sure, but also shorthand for advancing trends in technology that open the door to a new approach to understanding the world and making decisions.” According to an estimate published in Foreign Affairs
, only 25 percent of all stored information in the world was digital in 2000; today, less than 2 percent is not
quite a reversal.
Though enormous amounts of data are being processed by private companies for private gain, Big Data offers great potential for public benefit as well. In the United States, governmental agencies are releasing data for public and commercial use at all levels of the public sector—from the federal government’s data.gov platform, to state and county data clearinghouses, to open data catalogs offered by cities.
What Does Big Data Offer Preservation?
Big Data can help us build crowdsourced catalogs of historic resources, can point us to smarter preservation policies, and can help us engage broad public audiences with information about the character of our towns and cities. Here are some ways we can use Big Data to support preservation:
- The world of Big Data allows us to develop and implement new survey tools that use smartphones and tablets to catalog resources. In Los Angeles, city officials are managing a citywide survey process, SurveyLA, that involves photographing and documenting historic resources using tablets and smartphones. Angelenos collecting data in the field are inputting information directly into a citywide database that will ultimately be fully mapped and publicly searchable. In Muncie, Ind., meanwhile, Donovan Rypkema and Cara Bertron of PlaceEconomics piloted a new analytic tool called ReLocal. Using the tool, a team of volunteers traveled Muncie’s streets and used mobile devices to collect property information and characterize the state of buildings and neighborhoods. Once assembled, the ReLocal data was used to create a strategic plan with recommendations for fostering stable, sustainable neighborhoods throughout the city.
- Big Data creates new opportunities to demonstrate how older buildings support sustainability and vitality. Many large cities, including New York, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and Chicago, recently began requiring the public disclosure of building energy use for many buildings in their cities. The data that emerged from these disclosures revealed that cities’ older buildings often perform as well or better than new buildings in terms of energy usage. Past research from the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Preservation Green Lab established empirical support for Carl Elefante’s pithy adage, “The greenest building is one that already exists.” New data from New York and other cities provides further evidence.
- Big Data can be used to present information about the historic resources of communities in novel, alluring ways that engage large public audiences. Over the past year, citywide maps depicting the age of buildings have drawn significant attention over the web. Publications including The Atlantic Cities, the Wired MapLab blog, Gizmodo, Curbed, New York Magazine, and others have published articles highlighting various maps of cities’ historic development. Maps of Portland, Ore., Brooklyn , and the entirety of New York City began the trend. Chicago and St. Louis have followed more recently. Wired’s MapLab blog even provided a step-by-step guide for readers interested in producing a building age map of their own hometowns.
Jeana Wiser of the Preservation Green Lab recently created a map depicting the age of buildings in Baltimore, Maryland, as part of the Green Lab’s Partnership for Building Reuse
. In recent months, maps showing the age of buildings in a variety of cities around the world have popped up online.
The Limits of Big Data
For all of the world-changing rhetoric surrounding Big Data, it is important to note its limits. Most importantly, while any macro-scale view of the world or of a city helps us see general trends and draw correlations between measures, Big Data doesn’t help us understand why
things are the way they are. Causation is much trickier to discern than simple correlation or coincidence.
Second, some data will always be inaccurate. When you’re looking at mountains of information, it’s often easy to ignore the fact that some of the data may be missing or may simply be wrong. When you zoom in and study a particular piece of a large dataset, you may be alarmed to find peculiar aberrations from reality. For local action, every large dataset still requires checking the data’s veracity on the ground.
Finally, while Big Data can be a powerful tool for informing discussions, the task of translating the data to action still requires creativity, tenacity, and know-how. No matter how massive the dataset, it takes passion and persuasion to make data mean something and make a difference in the world around us.
The world of Big Data offers exciting new opportunities for preservationists, whether through fast-paced electronic historic resource surveys collected using mobile devices or through interactive maps showing building age that attract new minds to the preservation movement.
In May 2014, the National Trust's Preservation Green Lab released the findings of a major research project that leveraged Big Data to show how older, smaller buildings support urban vitality. Combining data from public and private sources, we will demonstrate that the older sections of cities are often cities’ most socially, culturally, and economically vital places.
For more on the Older, Smaller, Better report visit www.oldersmallerbetter.org.
Mike Powe is the senior research manager at the Seattle-based National Trust Preservation Green Lab.
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