Yes, but where do we put the front door? How a visualization of smartphone data can help architects design better buildings

Credit: Angela Rout

The most common question I get asked when I tell people I use smartphone data to design better places and spaces is…“Really?…How?”

Most people wonder how I use a bunch of numbers in a spreadsheet to help designers make environments that people love. When I started my PhD I wondered the same thing…(cue an entire thesis dedicated to the subject!)

My Master’s degree in Architecture and my previous work in design helped me put myself into the shoes of people who move around buildings and spaces. Through a study of human-centered-design methods, I learned that it is critical for designers to study people, to make sure buildings and urban spaces are experienced the way they were originally intended. 

If you have ever dived into the personal data stored on your android phone (check out your “Google Takeout” account), you will know that your smartphone records information about your location. This data includes variables that are spatial (your location) and temporal (the time it was recorded). If you visualize this data you will see lines on a map representing where you traveled while carrying your phone. I wondered: can designers use this information to design better buildings or urban spaces?

To help answer this question, together with my team, I created a visualization of smartphone data on the University of Calgary Campus. You can see it here. There’s helpful (and fun!) information in this video here, or descriptions here. While creating this visualization my team met with architects who were involved in designing a new building at the university. The architects had many interesting questions about how people use the campus, such as: “Which direction do people usually come from when arriving to campus? Do people leave the same way they come?” or “Where do people hang-out outside when it’s snowy and is it the same when it is sunny?”. These architects felt that knowing the answers to these questions would help them design better buildings and spaces. For example, this information could help them locate main corridors or create outdoor spaces for people to hang out in. These are also the exact types of questions that smartphone location data can answer.

Once the visualization was finished, we also conducted a survey with 14 additional architects and then I also interviewed 6 other architecture experts about using tools like this in their workflows. This sample group of experts stated that they would use smartphone data visualizations to understand the flow of human movement over time. These visualizations can also help architects decide on optimal locations  for new design interventions. The architects we interviewed said that they would use a visualization of smartphone data in different stages of the design process including schematic design, conceptual design and design development. Personally, I learned that smartphone data has multiple applications in architectural design practice and it may actually help answer one of the most important questions of all…where on earth should we put the front door?

I am pleased that in my current role as a postdoctoral researcher at UBC, as I am extending this work to learn about how people use green spaces and urban forests. Expect more about that in future blog posts!

If you would like to read the publication related to this work, the pre-publication paper is here. I am pleased to announce this paper will also soon be published in a book entitled Urban Informatics for Future Cities, published by CUPUM-Springer.

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