At Payette we use data visualization every day. Whether we are trying to convey building program or energy performance, we utilize graphic representations of data to tell complex stories.
In February I attended this year’s Design Museum Boston’s UNITE event which focused on data visualization. The event was a panel discussion led by Kristian Kloeckl, an Associate Professor at the Department of Art + Design and School of Architecture at Northeastern University. Nigel Jacobs, of Urban Technologist and Co-Founder of New Urban Mechanics, Angela Bassa, a Data Science Manager at EnerNOC and Michael Ledoux, the Associate Creative Director at Sapient filled out the panel. It wasn’t surprising that even though the professions of the panelists vary greatly there is an underlying thread connecting everyone.
What I realized is that I use data visualization so often that I don’t even recognize that I’m doing it! It’s a tool to decode information, to compare and contrast dynamic options and to quickly and simply be able to share a much larger narrative.
The theme that emerged in the panel discussion was intent. No matter how beautiful the end product is, it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t align with the intent of creating it in the first place. Angela Bassa brought up the point that if you are trying to start a dialog and get people involved in the process the last thing you want to do is show a perfected beautiful image. Instead, you want to bring a work in progress to the table – something a little rough around the edges. Let the data do the talking and figure out what you want to do with it first. I think of how that connects back to what we do at Payette. So often we gather information, we spend hours researching a topic and before we make any hard decisions we bring it to our consultants, clients and peers to add another layer of information and insight. Truly understanding all the data is the first step.
For example, the siting of a building can have many layers of data that determine the final location. Zoning may suggest there is one obvious location for the building; however, when you layer information about future growth, pedestrian paths (both above, on and below ground), vehicular and service circulation, wind studies, solar orientation, and geotechnical considerations on top of this data, the result may be very different.
Similarly when pursuing an active lighting strategy the data shows that ambient lighting combined with task lighting and occupancy sensors use significantly less energy than a traditional ambient system. However, it requires user education and cooperation to work effectively, and may not be the appropriate solution in every setting. Understanding work flow, light level requirements and user expectations will have a huge impact on the final lighting strategy.
Data visualization is a universal tool and is particularly useful to architects. The key is to remember the intent and decide the narrative before you create the end product because not all data is actually telling you what you think, you have to dig a little deeper.