Smarts in the City

I sat in on a workshop recently discussing SmartCampus initiatives, and possible research and pedagogical agendas surrounding them.

Attendees were an interesting mix of geography and urban planning professors, a couple psychologists,  practicing higher education professionals like facilities managers, planners, and even 3 map librarians.  There were also a handful of folks from private industry–a startup or two and two very large corporations.

These ‘specialist meetings’ are somewhat of a tradition at UCSB, and oral tradition tells us that UCGIS was born at one such meeting.

I’m not sure if this meeting will spawn a new organization or if any projects were inspired by the discussions, but it was a great opportunity to sit down with a wide variety of people who all think about the environment around us (whether that’s a city or a college campus) and how technology is built into it.

Some really enlightening information came out.  One fun stat is that some college campuses are 2% classroom spaces and 25% offices.  One person took this up and suggested there’s too many people with offices (but that seemed to devolve pretty quickly into debating about open office plans–but to me that’s an idea with 60 years of failure behind it.  I’m more interested in how the 2 and 25% numbers got calculated).  The more interesting takeaway might be that using the educational environment (a campus) to do research, even if it’s about how effective the environment is at facilitating education, is very difficult to do.

Chalk data chart on a sidewalk from

There was quite a bit of talk about exposing all the myriad data streams that Smart Buildings gather in APIs that can be remixed for pedagogy, research, and creative work.  This was highlighted in some concluding remarks as a call for SmartCampus projects that spawn “creative tension,” that is, interaction and communication that leads people to think and act and create.  The example given was an urban intervention where one block of Oxford, England was given over to daily data visualizations in chalk.  The data were generated by community members answering poll questions inside of shops, but the same approach could be used with any number of data points.  What happens when the street becomes a screen?  What happens when a data stream about waste water is published above a culverted stream?  And if that data stream has an open API, what might the world do with it?

I took away two concrete ideas for projects moving forward–one inside the library that would gather an important set of operational data (temperature and humidity), and another that would offer an intriguing view into the daily use patterns of the building:  a noise level map.  The second project is to bring conduct a serious digital ethnography about how people navigate the city that is the campus.  Stay tuned for those.