I am a PhD. Visualizing the User Generated City

On March 26 I defended my PhD Thesis in information design at Milan Politecnico, after 3 years of research within Density Design Lab  under the supervision of Paolo Ciuccarelli and presenting Andrew Vande Moere as external discussant.
My thesis is called “Visualizing the User Generated city: Exploring the potentiality of emergent geo-Social Media applications as a novel source of urban knowledge” and it  explores and presents methods and tools to collect, analyze, and represent time-based geo-located Social Media data at the urban scale.
The general aim is to investigate possible perspectives for the use of these data for urban planning and city management processes. The research mainly question whether geo-located Social Media data can be useful in the creation of indicators of urban life, as it is perceived and communicated by the city users.

In fact, although traditional data collection methods such as surveys, interviews, questionnaires, and, more recently, data harvesting and analysis techniques (e.g. using geographical location data from mobile devices) have provided interesting insights into the social life of urban spaces, they can be nowadays complemented using geo-located Social Media data.

On one side, the research reviews the existing literature, projects, approaches related to data-visualization and geo-located social mining techniques used to investigate topics of urban interests and presents new interpretative frameworks to share this very knowledge through.
On the other side, the research presents several design experiments that have been conducted in collaboration with urban stakeholders at different levels and in multiple US and European cities.

Also reflecting upon these delicate issues, the research tries to maintain a critical position, exploring if and how geo-located social mining techniques can still constitute a sustainable (in the wider sense, including societal sustainability) new perspective for planning and decision-making processes and practices.

As a conclusion, some final considerations on the contribution that design, especially information and interface design, can bring to the very field are presented. Here, visualizations and interfaces are not conceived only as final outputs, but rather as pivotal points of the interpretative processes and discussion with practitioners that define new ways of understanding complex systems of information•

you can download the full Thesis here
or browse some contents and layouts previews here below.


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Introduction: a research approach merging the academy and the industry 

The present research aims at understanding the contribution that design can bring to the research and practice within the urban field through gathering, interpreting and representing geo-localized Social Media data. Since its very beginning, the research undertook an explicit approach towards the professional fields of design, with the goal of bridging the divide between professionals and the academy.

In a context where experimenting represents an essential condition for theory production and scholars are assuming the role of new reflective practitioners, design can indeed provide essential theoretical and methodological contributions to the definition of new urban research practices.

The collaborations with professionals and practitioners, and the participation in not-strictly academic research contexts have therefore paved the basis for this disser- tation, with the attempt to undertake city and urban studies in a real multidisciplinary fashion. Thus, the research draws upon several design experiments that have been conducted with urban stakeholders at different levels and in multiple US and European cities, not only inside the framework and the connections provided by Politecnico di Milano, but taking a further advantage of the active professional role I have in the infor- mation design company (Accurat) I co-founded in 2011 for research purposes.

Within the research process the collaboration between computer sciences, social and urban studies and design disciplines have been leveraged; knowledge and exper- tise in the professional field have served the purpose of the generation of new academic knowledge.

As a result, I truly believe that a deep and constant relationship between critical analysis and practice, and between academy and the professional world should be en- couraged in any doctoral design research.

As a demonstration of the particular approach that would benefit the generation of new knowledge I included some of the original contributions from the various projects I took part in. Specifically I wish to acknowledge and thanks the contributors for the literature produced within the Telltale and the *UrbanSensing projects, and the research stimuli and insights provided within the experience of the start-up Pleens•


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Telltale is a research project conducted among three different departments of Politecnico di Milano (Design department, DAStU department of Architecture and Ur- ban Studies, DEIB department of Electronics, Information and Bioengineering). It is a research project leveraging the collaboration between computer sciences, social and urban studies and design disciplines at Politecnico di Milano. One of the goals of the project is to design the methodological framework that defines how to extract urban knowledge from geo-referenced Social Media Data.

*UrbanSensing is a research project funded by the European Commission within the Capacities Programme (2012-2014).

The Capacities Programme is a strand of FP7 strongly oriented toward establishing collaborative frameworks between research performers (universities, research centers) and industry (often SMEs – small and medium enterprises), funding research project with an applied component.

In other terms, the EU expects that within the scope of projects funded by Capacities, consortia composed of representatives from academia and industry work together in order to provide the Partners coming from industry with prototypes that can be transformed into products and services to be distributed in the market.

The aim of *UrbanSensing is to design and develop web platform extracting pat- terns of use related or concerning city spaces, through a robust analysis of geo-refer- enced Social Media data shared by the city users and inhabitants, specially conceived for practitioners in the field.

Although carried out by diverse teams, Telltale and *UrbanSensing shared a joint research trajectory and a common orientation. As a design researcher at Milan Politec- nico and as co-founder and designer at Accurat (one of the SME partners of the *Urban- Sensing project) I have been active part of the two projects and I had the possibility to consider and examine the two projects in conjunction, actively participating in both the theoretical and methodological aspects and in the design ones.

Telltale and *UrbanSensing used a design approach and design experiments in different phases of the process. In Telltale several practical investigations were conduct- ed in an exploratory way with the goal of clarifying, testing, and refining the research questions and the interpretation algorithms. In *UrbanSensing the design experiments had a different and more applied purpose as the consortium and the research project itself were strongly targeted towards the exploitation of the sensing platform, in terms of both commercial potential and societal benefits.

In other terms, the two projects were conceived within the same research trajectory, but Telltale started earlier and had a more exploratory stance and therefore al- lowed to pave the basis for the more practically oriented explorations elaborated in *UrbanSensing.

The last external experience I’ve been working on during the past 3 years is a start- up called Pleens, that aims at brining a new product to the market, specifically conceived to let people share geo-localized narratives in an emotional way. The PhD research main trajectory finds its conclusion with the active participation in the design of an emotional interface specifically designed to foster people producing meaningful contents related to physical places.

Telltale project’s team at Politecnico di Milano:
− Density Design Research Lab – Design Department: Paolo Ciuccarelli, Matteo

Azzi, Giorgio Caviglia, Giorgia Lupi,
− DASTU: Fabio Manfredini, Paolo Dilda, Paolo Tagliolato, − DEIB: Davide Eynard, Fabio Marfia, Matteo Matteucci,

*UrbanSensing project’s partners:

T-Connect from Italy, IT4All from France, the Technical University of Kosice from Slovakia, Accurat from Italy, Mobiguo from Spain, LUST from the Netherlands.

Pleens project’s partners and credits:
− Editorial Direction: Filippo Pretolani
− Concept: Mafe de Baggis
− Identity, visual & Interaction Design: Giorgia Lupi
− Project Management & Problem Solving: Gabriele Rossi − Illustrations: Michela Buttignol
− Software Analysis & Architecture: Marco Vettorello
− App development: Riccardo Paolillo e Michele Orru

A special mention and acknowledgment goes to Paolo Patelli, Luca Simeone, Salvatore Iaconesi and Marco Vettorello with whom the original research idea was shaped.

*Extensive part of the Thesis will be published in “Visualizing the Data City” Social Media as a Source of Knowledge for Urban Planning and Management – a POLIMI SPRINGER BRIEFS book I coauthored with Paolo Ciuccarelli and Luca Simeone•


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About giorgia lupi

1981 I am an architect that never built any house (luckily). I work with information, designing, researching and drawing a lot. I am co-founder ad design director at Accurat (www.accurat.it) I am a PhD student at Milan Politecnico (www.densitydesign.org)

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