The Limits Of A Data-Driven Approach

Because we lack the conventional metrics to define and measure, for example, the hardships of walking, we don’t design and enforce solutions or adopt targeted public policies.

Designers in almost all fields make critical decisions based on their domain knowledge, observable conditions, and of course data. More and more, incredible amounts of finely grained and immediately available (and updated) data is required to be incorporated into product decisions. Given the quantitative nature of some of this data, it is often judged to be unbiased, truthful, and complete. Few people take the time to question the data - not the accuracy per se, but what is (and is not) being measured.

This article highlights the assumptions and challenges urban planners encounter when considering the health of our cities. It also shows how qualitative data can be used to make clear problems that purely quantitative approaches often fail at capturing. Indeed, its hard to imagine the level of instrumentation required to provide the nuance captured in a stroll down a city street.


Book Review: The World Without Us

One of the pleasures of holiday breaks is the opportunity to read an entire book in a short period of time. Many books I have read were consumed in fits and starts, at night or on the subway. Over the winter 2008-09 break I had the pleasure to read The World Without Us, which came recommended by my friend Yetsuh. I recall when it came out that it would fit neatly into the kind of pop-science writing I enjoy, but for some reason never picked up a copy until I was shopping for presents in the local book store (one for me, one for them). To start, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It is well-written and well-researched, but I most enjoyed the central device of the book, which is an Earth where humans have instantly and completely disappeared. The author Alan Weisman uses this to deliver a not-altogether uplifting picture of the destructive impact we have on our planet. He moves from the obvious constructed world to the less noticed, but perhaps more consequential, environments of the undersea and forests, then ancient civilzations (for the latter, Jared Diamond goes into equally sobering depth).

The author's technique of zooming into and out of a problem to gain perspective reminded me of methods I use to do the same in approaching design problems. He does this literally by discussing microbes around us to space vehicles we've sent out, as well as moving rapidly through time to cover the impact of mankind in prehistory. The section on plastics and their utter foreign-ness to our planet was deeply disturbing.

Over time I've read most of what's in this book, I've never seen it all put together in a way that reveals so many connections. For example, I've heard theories about why megafuana in North America disappeared abruptly about 13,000 years ago. Speculation is that humans migrating from Asia easily slaughtered giant sloths, mammoths and camels that weren't used to them. Weisman goes further and suggests that African megafuana still exist because they evolved with humans over millenia, and this might be their only hope for survival. Weisman traces the diaspora of humans to the point of their tragic re-introduction to their ancestors in Africa in one particularly moving passage.

At the end few remedies are offered outside of the premise of the book, but this is powerful enough to make one realize the scope of work that must be done to salvage what's left. It's clear that life will continue on without humans, and will in many ways be better off without us. As a designer, I have some choices in the life cycle of products, but it is as a consumer and citizen that I can have the biggest impact.

New NYC Parking Signs

For the last few weeks I've admired these new parking signs in the Chelsea, New York neighborhood that my office is in. I'm surprised the city used what appear to be high-quality materials and a clean design for both the form and the typography. It looks like something out of Northern Europe. I checked around online and couldn't immediately find any reference to these. Perhaps these are the result of a business improvement district and city partnership, or maybe test models.

Given the uneven track record of city agencies in carrying out revisions to signage, I'm not holding out hope this represents the future of signage in NYC. Paul Shaw recently wrote an article for the AIGA that covers the history of Helvetica as the typface of the MTA subway signage. Beyond the typical organizational cluelessness and inertia that dogged the rollout of a modern wayfinding system, relevant to today is the issue of cost - replacing signage in the subway system, let alone the city streets, must be a huge expenditure. Returning to the design of the signs, it would seem the city has invested in a quality fixture, with a solid base bolted to the street (assume it breaks on impact, sparing the cost of a new one and tearing up the sidewalk to replace), and an interchangeable and adjustable upper portion that is removed with a simple bolt. I'd be curious to know more about these.

Fearing Fear

Some wonderful friends just departed our home after spending part of a week with us here in Brooklyn, and a few days in Washington, DC. It seems they had a nice time (besides the cool weather), and were pleasantly surprised how livable (dare I say, European) New York is. But one complaint they had really resonated. Most everywhere they went (and they visited a number of touristy spots) they encountered what they felt to be frustrating and overwhelming security arrangements. They didn't encounter any problems due to their Belgian citizenry, but were amazed at the barriers (and inefficiencies) that met them at nearly every federal or high-profile facility. I had to apologize and explain the extreme politicization of my country's "security" in the name of the "war on terror".

To loosely paraphrase, our country is still re-fighting the last war. Reading things like this makes me crazy. We will become so fearful in our daily lives we will lose what we've worked hard to build. Why can't we conduct anti-terrorist actions like any other police or military action? Like other countries who have extensive histories of radical violence do? Don't make a big deal about it -  just go after the guys.

Ebbets Field of Dreams

ebbetsfield.jpgDuring what was probably my last visit to Edwardsville, IL, home of my grandfather and father, I happened by this:  It may be hard to tell from the photo, but this is the entrance to a development named "Ebbets Field" rising in a former corn field. There may be less appropriate locations for a tract detached housing development named after a demolished (over 50 years ago, and cherished by some) baseball stadium formerly the home of the Brooklyn Dodgers than and exurb of St. Louis, but its a bit of a stretch. I could continue discussing this misappropriation, but what was more disturbing is a common irony: Edwardsville, IL had a small, walkable, intact town center until recently. My grandfather had a general store I could walk to, and relatives had a bakery near there. In the last decade or so, the town has widened roads to accommodate more traffic and built chain stores and strip malls, many of them themed to look "ye olde" or "1920's". The quality of construction is very poor, with stucco facades molded to give the appearance of buildings of a century ago, but a lifespan of probably 20 years. So density is decreasing, necessitating cars, while building styles emulate a walkable past that most have never experienced.