Picturing Urban Decay

| September 21, 2011

Derek Watkins is a graduate student of geography at the University of Oregon. Stemming from his research interests in place, culture, representation, technology, and cartography, he has created this intriguing visualization entitled “Picturing Urban Decay…An Exploration of Blight as Depicted Through Online Photography,” posted on his blog. The piece is accompanied by an equally intriguing commentary about his vision and intent for the project.

His initial inquiry is a consideration upon “whether what we see online is really representative of a place.” As more and more people put information about places out on the web, Watkins wants to explore how “the digital divide–differences in education, age, economic position, culture, location–affects who wants to/can/does/ author the descriptions of places we find online.”

Essentially, he attempts to portray the nebulous concept of urban decay through a particular data set that he has mined: geotagged images uploaded to the photo-sharing website flickr.com. He identifies that in the United States, popular portrayals of urban decay “often approach the subject in aesthetic terms” and due to their subjective nature, they are difficult to organize. Moreover, the unprecedented volume of information published online through all sorts of new media continues to develop a daunting collection of data. Unfazed, Watkins navigates both the subjective and the surplus and has come out with a profound piece of data art.

The Vision

Watkins seeks to explore this “mass” of information in order to uncover perceptions “that otherwise may have remained in the minds of the authors,” in this case, flickr photographers. A thorough explanation of his vision is provided at the top of the visualization. For instance, he writes, “When users attached information linking their contributions to specific locations, the trends can be mapped to reveal broad-scale patterns.”

So, he maps the location from which photos tagged “urban decay” have been uploaded to flickr and uses dots and circles to indicate (1) individual photos of urban decay, (2) the number of photos taken within a 20 mile radius of each urban area, and (3) the six most photographed urban areas. On the side, he’s gathered data from Zillow, Natural Earth, the U.S. Census Bureau, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and created graphs of population change, manufacturing employment, and home values in each city, as these are the three measures he’s identified that can predict or reflect the emergence of decay. The result, in his own words, “is a map that illustrates the distribution of decay, as defined by the culturally-informed aesthetic preferences of individual photographers,” and is supplemented by statistical contextual data.

Aesthetics & Data

Watkins’ visualization is especially innovative because it’s not just data art in itself; rather, it is, in a sense, a study of the aesthetically preferred data that others choose to generate. The utility of his approach is undeniable, because as social media users proliferate data, the development of methods to organize and understand it is imperative. Picturing Urban Decay transforms a very subjective set of crowdsourced data into a well-contextualized set of quantitative data.

Watkins’ vision seems to be as artistically driven as it is journalistically driven. He writes, “I don’t argue that this map provides an accurate portrayal of people’s opinions in broad terms. Instead, I wanted to embrace the biases inherent in the flickr user base to try to map how the photos there might represent (and perhaps distort) the world. You may be right to argue that this verges on triviality but at the same time, maybe not.” Trivial or not, the map is certainly filled with multi-perspectival information.

On his blog, Watkins writes that he’s in the early stages of doing similar work for his thesis–mining flickr data to study how the U.S./Mexico border is represented online. We’re excited to see what he comes up with.