May 05, 2014
THEME: Technology + Innovation

The Datafication of Design: Thinking Big (and small)

While the AEC industry is now buzzing with anticipation over “Big Data,” information technology research firm Gartner signaled last year the phenomenon we call Big Data is on the verge of falling into the “Trough of Disillusionment.” This “trough” is a low point on a curve that Gartner calls the technology “Hype Cycle,” which the firm uses to assess the maturity of emerging technologies.

Disillusionment begins with the realization that expectations are out of alignment with the value that can realistically be delivered, resulting in the emergence of opponents and skeptics against the wild-eyed optimism that accompanies new technology.

But this disillusionment also signals the onset of a more sober approach to these technologies, wherein the true, if more modest, value is uncovered. And promises of Big Data are borne of one undeniable fact: there are fewer and fewer phenomena in this world that are not quantifiable, collectible, retrievable, and analyzable in the form of digital data.

In their book, Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think, Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger and Kenneth Cukier refer to this phenomenon as “datafication.” According to the authors, datafication is “a continuation of humankind’s ancient quest to measure, record, and analyze the world.” What information technologies have done is to allow datafication to creep into nearly every aspect of our existence.

In the architecture, engineering, and construction world, we have recognized relatively recently that planners, designer, and builders generate a great deal of data during the project delivery process through the use of Building Information Models, project management tools, and financial management tools. Even the fabled napkin sketch finds its way into Powerpoint presentations via digital scanning or photography.

And we now have access to vast amounts of externally available data on people, buildings, cities, and natural environments. These include open municipal data sets, climate and weather data, demographics and census data, material data, and more. But while this data may be “big” as an aggregate whole, it remains largely in the form of “small” data sets that are unorganized, unstandardized, and unconnected.

So perhaps the Big Data question in AEC, while pregnant with potential, is slightly premature. What if we take “datafication” as its own challenge, and we consider these datasets in isolation or in smaller aggregates: the “small data” that is everywhere.

Rufus Pollock, founder of the Open Knowledge Foundation, notes that “the real opportunity is not big data, but small data. Not centralized ‘big iron’ but decentralized data wrangling.” He continues, “we risk overlooking the real revolution, which is the mass democratisation of the means of access, storage, and processing of data.”

At Perkins+Will, we are as interested in the immediate impacts and applications of disaggregated “small” data, as in the long term potential of so-called Big Data.  This is not to imply that the former is mundane and the latter is a long way off. Both require that we think differently, and ask new questions. Both require that, as planners and designers, we reframe our services, our capabilities, and our business operations.

First, we are focused on building capability and fostering a sensibility about data. While many of our practices have long maintained sophisticated analytical capabilities, we are now also developing new applications for data gathering, management, and analysis.

Particular examples are proving successful for early planning, both at the workplace scale and the campus or urban scale. We are combining new forms of user interaction and with proprietary and freely available data visualization resources to provide a rich source of information that improves design decisions, as well as our clients’ operations. Read more about this idea on the blog.

Gathering and using this data involves investment in infrastructure and skills, as well as development of awareness and agility in our design practice to embrace data-driven process.

And the real Big Data is out there. Despite the hype, the promises of new insights and validation for our own insights are within reach. Knowledge and wisdom will grow where the worlds of true Big Data, small data, and our experience intersect; where the knowledge and sentiment of the “crowd” can begin to underpin the decisions that we have  reached through our own rigor and analysis.

This post was originally authored by Josh Emig.

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