Laura Kurgan & Sarah Williams: Using GIS to Expose Cities’ Injustices

Using sophisticated mapping technology, these information designers uncover hidden data to expose social injustice.

OCCUPATION: Educators, information designers, data repurposers
AFFILIATION: Columbia University
LOCATION: New York City

“We live in an age of data enthusiasm,” Sarah Williams says, sitting with Laura Kurgan in the offices of the Spatial Information Design Lab (SIDL) at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. She’s talking about the sudden ubiquity of seductively authoritative-looking charts and graphs in print and, especially, online. Kurgan and Williams are data enthusiasts, but their work takes a decidedly more rigorous and critical approach than the typical Infographic of the Day. Since 2004, they have pioneered the use of mapping to uncover hidden and often surprising facts about the contemporary city, and to expose social ills in desperate need of design solutions.

Kurgan, an architect by training, founded SIDL in 2004. Williams, who studied geography and planning, and worked at one of the first geographic information system (GIS) companies, joined soon after. (They now direct the lab together.) From the start, their goal was to unite innovative mapping and data-visualization strategies with the spatial expertise of architects and planners. “A lot of people use GIS, but they don’t use it in a design-oriented way,” Kurgan says. “They use it in a sociological or a political way. And I think that what we’ve done together really well is we’ve brought GIS to the design world in lots of unusual ways—technologically and aesthetically.”

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That’s not to say that sociology and politics don’t factor into their work. SIDL’s signature project is Million Dollar Blocks, a collaboration with the criminal-justice policy activist Eric Cadora (who now runs the nonprofit Justice Mapping Center). Using troves of data from Departments of Corrections nationwide, SIDL mapped an unsettling trend: a disproportionate number of the two million people locked up in the United States come from just a handful of neighborhoods in the country’s biggest cities. By highlighting the long-term costs of incarcerating those prisoners, SIDL showed that some states were spending more than a million dollars to lock up residents from a single city block.

Not all of SIDL’s work is quite so serious-minded. A recent project led by Williams looked at New Yorkers’ smartphone check-ins on Foursquare and Facebook, and found an unanticipated prevalence of “fake” check-in spots, whose made-up names reflect users’ fleeting emotional states. Williams calls her map of those points the Psychological City, and, like Million Dollar Blocks, it’s an example of “a theme that runs through the lab: the inadvertent uses of data sets,” Kurgan says. “It’s repurposing data to show it for its most surprising content.”

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