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How trash can reveal an urban landscape’s ‘invisible realities’

Dietmar Offen­huber, a newly appointed assis­tant pro­fessor of infor­ma­tion visu­al­iza­tion, strives to unveil the invis­ible real­i­ties of the urban land­scape by map­ping the spa­tial orga­ni­za­tion of people and objects.

His ulti­mate research goal, he said, is to uncover the inner work­ings of city­wide infra­struc­ture sys­tems in order to influ­ence the pol­i­cy­making agenda.

“You can use this data to con­struct meaning in sci­en­tific dis­course as well as in the public policy domain,” said Offen­huber, who holds joint appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Arts, Media & Design and the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties.

Two of his research projects began at an unlikely source: trash. For one project, he worked with waste picker coop­er­a­tives in São Paulo and Recife, Brazil, in order to under­stand their spa­tial orga­ni­za­tion. Using GPS log­gers, he mapped their col­lec­tion routes throughout the city, and then devel­oped a smart­phone appli­ca­tion for a community-​​based recy­cling pro­gram in which res­i­dents and busi­ness owners could request pickup of paper, plastic, and other materials.

The project’s goal, Offen­huber said, was to sup­port the waste pickers on their way to pro­fes­sion­al­iza­tion. “By placing their move­ments ‘on the map,’ it con­veyed a sense of iden­tity for the coop­er­a­tive, pro­viding tan­gible evi­dence of their place in the city,” he observed in an aca­d­emic paper on the project. “The recy­clers’ move­ments are highly selec­tive,” he added. “They focus on spa­tially dis­persed indi­vidual sources—apartments, mar­kets, and businesses—rather than ser­vicing a coherent area.”

For another project, he stuck GPS tracking devices to 3,000 pieces of trash in the city of Seattle and then mapped the garbage’s move­ment over a two-​​month period. Most of the trash remained in the city, Offen­huber said, but some of the cell phones, flu­o­res­cent light bulbs, and bat­teries ended up in states as far-​​flung as Florida, Michigan, and Idaho.

The project won the 2010 National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion Inter­na­tional Sci­ence and Engi­neering Visu­al­iza­tion Chal­lenge and the find­ings shed light on an envi­ron­mental paradox: “We found cases in which the trans­port of recy­cled items con­sumed more energy than it would be pos­sible to cap­ture from the objects them­selves,” Offen­huber explained. The upshot, he said, is that “we have to design a less cen­tral­ized col­lec­tion model that involves the indi­vidual to a larger degree.”

Offen­huber com­pleted both projects as a research fellow and doc­toral can­di­date in the SENSEable City Lab at the Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nology. His fac­ulty appoint­ment aligns with Northeastern’s com­mit­ment to serving as an edu­ca­tional leader in under­standing big data through infor­ma­tion design, a field for which the uni­ver­sity has devel­oped a new inter­dis­ci­pli­nary master’s program.

Offen­huber serves as one of the program’s core fac­ulty mem­bers and praised its unique approach to trans­lating data into visual, phys­ical, and vir­tual forms. “Very few pro­grams in the country focus specif­i­cally on visu­al­iza­tion and data-​​driven modes of design,” he explained, noting his goal of strength­ening the pro­gram through col­lab­o­ra­tions with col­leagues in Northeastern’s Center for Com­plex Net­work Research. “The uni­ver­sity is a very dynamic place.”

– By Jason Kornwitz

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