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Open data maps can help cities get to a better place

Submitted by douglas cooley on June 27, 2014

Sometimes it’s hard to map out exactly how open data helps create smarter cities. But a new project from MIT Media Labs is helping people see the benefits of open data with maps.

The Social Computing Group at the MIT Media Lab is tapping open data sources to generate interactive maps that provide meaningful insights into cities. For example, for Washington, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City and a handful of other cities the group has posted interactive maps that show the best transportation modes based on your location.

Then there’s a map that depicts noise complaints in New York City neighborhoods, and another that pinpoints the most common causes of hospitalization in different parts of the city. An Atlanta maps lets you visualize the amount of street greenery around downtown areas.

The goal: 10,000 city maps

The project, called You Are Here, involves a gang of computer scientists, mathematicians, artists, designers and educators who are bent on creating design patterns, social processes and technical tools to make cities more livable and healthy places.

To build the smart and artful maps, the You Are Here team pulls in data from governmental and non-governmental sources. These include Google Street View, census data and city police reports and zoning ordinances. The About section for each map describes the data sources and APIs that are used in the map.  

The You Are Here team intends to release one map each day in the first year of the project. The long term and more ambitious plan is to upload 100 maps for 100 different cities. That would add up to a total of 10,000 maps.

A platform for civic change

One of the driving forces behind this map mania is to help people make their city a better place to live. For instance, mapping where bike accidents occur might encourage cities to put separate bike lanes at those locations. And mapping greenery in a city might encourage people to plant trees where there are none.

Another purpose is to figure out what tools are useful in bringing about changes in cities. Or, as the You Are Here website puts it:  “You Are Here is part of a larger experiment we’re doing that focuses on initiating social processes to change our environment. In other words we are learning how to build soft civic-platforms that make a difference in our physical environment.”