City Challenges
Smart urbanism

Research[x]Design: Making Data Useful for Citizens

Research[x]Design discuss visualisations and public participation in our blog series on making data useful for citizens.

Smart cities requires smart citizens. Citizens thus require access to valuable and relevant information to make sense of the true characteristics of their environment. For instance, urban data can demonstrate how urban challenges, such as traffic congestion, scarcity of energy, cultural diversity and so on can be solved.


However, this data is often hidden on public websites, either in an unprocessed format or presented as visualisations orientated towards experts. By situating these visualisations in an acces­sible format within the urban environment, it provides citizens with the opportunity to engage with data when and where it is relevant in order to trigger interpretation, reflection and social discussion on the data displayed. Ultimately, public visualisation aims to trigger a behavior change, such as participating in pub­lic debates, giving civic responses or breaking existing habits.


In the project Public Like Display, the Belgian research group Research[x]Design further investigate how citizens can make their own public visualisations from 1) selecting open data to 2) matching it with two-dimensional representations and text, which are 3) presented on several small, wireless displays.

First, via OrganiCity’s open data platform, a variety of data sets, including demographics, mobility, environment and so on can be selected. In Santander, there is also a civic participation platform called that allows citizens to share ideas about their future city, using the same categories as the open data sets. We decided to combine the philosophy of those two platforms: supporting those ideas with data as evidence.


Second, presenting data as data visualisations does not always appeal to a wide audience. Visualisations are typically aimed at experts: people who know the data topic well and are trained in reading graphs. Infographics are an exception; however the insights they represent can be rather limited, as they actually do not visualise data, but rather, put appealing icons next to a simple data fact. Adding a narrative to visualisations may be a solution for presenting complex data in an engaging way, such as on Bloomberg.

Public Like Display makes use of narrative visualisations through enabling citizens to not only select data and a way to represent the data, but also annotations as opinions, solutions, concerns and questions. Citizens are also invited to display their questions and allow passers-by to react to these question by selecting a happy, neutral or sad smiley.

Lastly, visualisations can be nicely designed, but if they are only accessible on a platform that is only viewed by a particular online community, it does not reach the wider and more diverse civic audience. Public visualisations are an opportunistic medium, as you may stumble upon them without prepossession, consult them whenever you like and meet other people who are interested in the data displayed. As such, strangers discuss civic topics on the streets, breaking out of their normal ‘filter bubbles’ and listen to the opinions of their neighbour or local shopkeeper.

In Public Like Display, the physical design of the displays encourages social interaction. Its playful appearance, in bright signaling colours, grabs attention. Some displays are interactive and offer three push buttons to invite participation.

Last week, we distributed 20 of these displays to 4 shops in Calle San Francisco in Santander, and put all this theory into practise. Follow our evaluation process on our blog.


Further reading: 

  • Claes, Sandy, and Andrew Vande Moere. “Street infographics: raising awareness of local issues through a situated urban visualization.” Proceedings of the 2nd ACM International Symposium on Pervasive Displays. ACM, 2013.
  • Claes, Sandy, and Andrew Vande Moere. “What public visualization can learn from street art.” Leonardo (2016).
  • Vande Moere, Andrew, and Hill, Dan. “Designing for the situated and public visualization of urban data.” Journal of Urban Technology 19.2 (2012): 25-46.
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