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    Lecture - Laura Kurgan

    By RMartz
    Nov 15, '13 11:11 AM EST


    Welcome back everyone. On the 9th we were joined by Laura Kurgan, an Associate Professor of Architecture at Columbia University and director of the Spatial Information Design Lab at Columbia. The lab began in 2004 to address a lack of GIS use in the school and since has worked on an array of projects covering a broad set of disciplines. A central tenant to her work is that “Data is not neutral, data is design”.  Anytime you work with data the information must be translated from one state to another, to become the final product, and thus in curating that data an argument is being made. Her work covers a wide range of topics, varying from shipping routes, to spatial crime analysis by block, to visualizing the Neurons of the human brain, all using data sets as an origin. I’ll briefly touch on a few.

    One project she presented was titled “Million Dollar Blocks” in which they were looking to discover the “spatial patterns that link, poverty, racial segregation, and incarceration” within in New York City. Working with the municipal court they were allowed access to a data set which tracked the flow of prisoners in, out, and transfers to other prisons. The most valuable piece of information though was the inmates home address. Because 95% of those incarcerated do go home they wanted to look at the patterns of the arrests in relation to where they lived. What they found was that while crime was fairly dispersed, specific neighborhoods are highly concentrated with incarcerated persons. They assigned monetary values equvalent to each of the inmates costs on the prison system, and thus in District 16, which has 3.5% of its population but 8.5% of its imprisoned, cost was over 11 million dollars. They also had to the opportunity to deploy similar tools to New Orleans where they were looking at the relationship of incarceration, poverty, and racial segregation.

    On a different track, Laura was a part of the “Native Land” project. Presented in a circular gallery with panoramic projection they were looking at human migration around the world, which illustrated the extent in which today’s world population is in motion. She firstly made the point that one of the difficulties of working with datasets is acquiring the data and then translating it into a matching format. They looked at a 6 themes to create this story; Population Shift: Cities, Remittances: Sending Money Home, Political Refugees and Forced Migration, Natural Disasters: Environmental refugees, Rising Seas and Sinking Cities, Speechless and Deforestation. One of particular interest was on Remittances. A remittance is money sent by an immigrant to their home country and on average the total amount of money per year is 3 times greater than that of financial aid. This was then visualized in graphic showing the country and then what countries money was being sent, thus giving a sense of the various nationalities that have immigrated. She also brought up an interesting example where the money was being specifically sent to set up companies or farms to produce goods to be sent back. The example she pointed out were goat farms being founded in their home country and then making an exchange that helps for children’s education for example.

    Currently they are working with the Columbia library system to redefine how people use and access the library in light of the increasing use of the internet search engine as a tool. When going digital two existing tracks they could have gone were to digitally imitate the existing shelving conventions (Harvard) or to follow in Amazons method of “if you like this book, you might like this book”. Rather, they designed a multidimensional system of 3 categories. Structural, which is the standard Dewy Decimal system of location, Social, which looks at what books are put on syllabi with each other, and Social, which looks at citations. By giving multiple, strong methods for locating books, the goal is to increase the usefulness of the library catalog.

    Beyond the three I’ve touched on she also presented work including the visualization of the movement of oil ships from port to port. Another was Jumping the Great Firewall of China, where they looked at banned documents and words that Chinese citizens post online. By taking photographs of text they can fool or slow down text recognition software, allowing the content to remain online longer, before being discovered and taken down. Lastly, one of her current projects is with the Mind, Brain, and Behavior Institute at Columbia to create data visualization strategies of their current research into Neural Networks, which is the forefront of understanding the brain.

    It was really interesting to see the type of work she and the team at Columbia produce when hovering the line between architecture and computer science. With the ever increasing amount of data in today’s world the ability to curate, understand, and present extractions and abstractions from huge swathes of data is an essential tool. As always you can find the lecture videos on the schools website,

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This blog will be a feeder for recent news, events and student work occurring at the Knowlton School at The Ohio State University. Posts will typically center around updates from the school's lecture series, exciting projects from recent student reviews and updates from other school events.

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