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Building Blocks: bridging big data and urban design

Updated: Sep 30, 2020

Written by Isabel Syrek

Participate in building a new knowledge resource for students and staff

at The Bartlett School of Planning

Join Isabel and her team on 1st October (4pm BST) as they share more about their project

During my time at The Bartlett School of Planning, I observed that in the analysis of any urban design project, students frequently integrate findings of transport data to snapshots of social media to portray the everyday workings of a particular place.

Often absent from these portrayals is further critical debate due to the lack of time which is spent on researching available data sets. Being able to access options for data sets at the beginning of a project would spare much valuable time spent on researching options and free up time for critical engagement and the design process.

Given that there is so much knowledge present across The Bartlett, I saw this as an opportunity to build a new resource. A new moodle page would support students and staff with the expertise to engage critically with large data sets in a more efficient and effective manner. To make this happen I applied for the UCL ChangeMakers Departmental Fund, which I was finally awarded in April 2020.

10 weeks of developing a new knowledge resource

The original aim of the ‘Building Blocks’ Moodle page was to demystify the use and availability of big data for the design of urban environments. Through our findings, we consolidated knowledge on the availability and use of data sets in addition to analytical software in a single moodle page, accessible by self-enrolment.

The UCL ChangeMakers Departmental Fund provided me with ten weeks’ worth of funding. I recruited four students from the three postgraduate programmes, MSc Urban Design and City Planning, MSc Sustainable Urbanism and MRes Interdisciplinary Urban Design and received support from Paula Morais, staff partner for this project. These three programmes were chosen because the engagement with urban design is an essential part of their curriculum.

On the value of a staff-student partnership approach

A partnership approach is crucial to the success of Building Blocks, as it is designed to benefit students and staff in the long-term by enabling cross-faculty knowledge exchange. Where students are likely to be biased in identifying data based on limited experience with course work, staff step in as invaluable partners to bring a perspective focussed on the big picture, considering their experience and pointing to resources and contacts students themselves might not be aware of. Both parties can learn from one another in this process. Similarly, their differing knowledge bases will complement in other areas, such as the analysis of findings.

Lastly, in growing the project over the next years it will need collaboration between staff and students. Where students can put in work under the supervision of staff, staff have the advantage of staying at the university for a longer period, providing continuity to the platform and overall project.

Follow up project: UCL Connected Learning Internship

In focus groups and interviews, both students and staff across The Bartlett mentioned the changes in methodology for urban design projects brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic. Faced with obstacles in research, students now must adapt their methodology for major research projects and theses. Moreover, members of staff are faced with the shift to online teaching that produces additional pressure to create resources for remote learning.

With the original Building Blocks project having come to an end in the last week of June 2020, there was a real need for this faculty-wide collaboration to continue. The UCL Connected Learning Internship provided an opportunity to give an understanding to students on using big data in a single, multimethod or mixed methods approach, but also by clarifying the differences between big data, quantitative and qualitative datasets and the different methodologies.

This extension grew the moodle resource by creating three further tabs in the existing page on big data for urban design and the different methodologies: one explaining the contrast of large quantitative datasets to big data, one on qualitative research, and finally a third tab on how to integrate both qualitative and quantitative datasets alongside big data in a mixed-methods approach applicable to urban design.

Next: Get involved to grow the resource

It is envisioned that over the next years, this knowledge resource will grow to include most schools across the Bartlett.

You can contribute to it by:

  • Posting to the forum and sharing web links, your own research and data sets which will then be reviewed and incorporated into the resource

In particular, there is space for expansion on:

  • data sets from different countries

  • reliable information on data ethics

  • descriptive statistics

  • your own research (at The Bartlett or elsewhere) using big data

  • any interesting literature you come across

  • and finally, feedback on the usability and accessibility of this resource

Some Final Words

The ‘Building Blocks’ moodle page is there to facilitate your research and provide you with an overview of available data sets, software and learning resources. While the mainstream conversation around big data focuses around the endless opportunities and portrays data as a seemingly neutral information resource, keep in mind that data is always constructed by the questions and biases we bring to it. In your engagement with big data, look for different ways of understanding it, its patterns, the reflected socio-economic structures, etc and what they are telling you. When you do, please share your findings on the resource – and keep the project a collaborative effort.

Currently ‘Building Blocks – Big Data for Urban Design’ is co-managed by Isabel and the Bartlett Urban Planning Society, subsequently to Isabel concluding her studies in 2021, ‘Building Blocks – Big Data for Urban Design’ will be handed over in it’s entirety to the Bartlett Urban Planning Society.

Useful links:

[ Enrolment key: 'BuildingBlocks' ]


About Isabel

Isabel is currently in her final year of her part-time master’s degree in Urban Design and City Planning at The Bartlett School of Planning. She was recipient of the ChangeMakers Departmental Fund in April 2020 and together with her team, launched the moodle page ‘Building Blocks – Big Data for Urban Design’ in September 2020.

Connect with Isabel on:

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