After the events of 9/11, it became clear that while many of America’s governmental agencies had been keeping extensive databases on terrorist-related activities, a complex set of rules and rivalries discouraged the sharing of information between agencies—information which, when overlaid, may have revealed potential security threats 1 .

Thanks to risk-taking whistle-blowers within the government and investigative reporting from the outside, we are all now aware of how the suspension or removal of many of these roadblocks thereafter has now served to form a more robust system of surveillance. However, the extent of this system remains somewhat unknown. It is necessarily private: a wealth of knowledge is restricted to those on the inside, ostensibly for the singular purpose of safety.

The ability to evaluate the relevance of different but overlapping information existed before 9/11, and was already present at a high level in America’s private industry. Systems Research & Development, a data mining company, invented their Non-Obvious Relationship Awareness (NORA) technology in the 1980’s, securing additional funding from CIA-backed venture capital firm In-Q-Tel in 2002. NORA pairs large databases with network analysis to uncover sometimes obscure, often personal relationships that can be exploited for profit in a casino setting, such as collusion between dealers and gamblers2 . Now owned by IBM, where it is called Identity and Relationship Resolution, NORA is one example of the robust data-processing systems created by the high-tech security industry—many of which have been adapted for other types of security management, often at a national scale.

What about other types of threats to cities? Given the adaptability of a system like NORA, one can imagine alternate uses for this technology, particularly in the field of urban planning. Information that describes land or space in terms of its physical qualities, status, spatial potential, financing, health factors and educational opportunities could be paired with descriptions, for example, of an open library referendum, native honey bee populations, geothermal maps, or information on light pollution—providing architects, planners, and policy makers with a deeper and more complex understanding of our cities, spaces, and ecologies. The challenge, however, is that many data sets are segregated, incompatible and locked behind pay-walls.

While many data sources on land value, land use, zoning and financing are public, they are not readily searchable as a database. The NYC Open Accessible Space Information System (OASIS) is an excellent example of a free, effective tool with information on every property in New York City’s five boroughs. However, while it links to a great variety of information types, OASIS does not allow for easy cross-referencing and comparison. Further, systems like OASIS do not usually extend to those seemingly unrelated factors that might help architects, planners, public groups and private entities get a full sense of the land parcel’s potential or needs.

This lack of potentially useful information is evident when looking at the data on food deserts: geographic areas, according to the USDA, where affordable and nutritious food is difficult to obtain, especially for those without access to an automobile3 . Locational information is collected and plotted on maps by the USDA, but those maps do not readily interface with other mapped information or databases that describe land use or ownership, let alone trucking routes, precipitation or, say, native fish populations.

Alex Pandel, founder of Civic Insight, a service that tracks properties and provides “simple, clear language and visualizations [to] help residents make sense of complicated processes like code enforcement and building permits”4 , has argued for the creation of common data standards. While this was a main goal of the FBI’s Information Sharing Task Force after 9/115 , it remains a roadblock to sharing between public and private entities. Organizations must push to streamline the format of data sets in order to establish easier sharing and compatibility, as well as more meaningful analysis and cross-pollination between different types of information.

Once the formatting of various types of data is streamlined, the application of technologies like NORA would not only allow architects and planners as well as land owners to maximize the potential of individual projects, but by making research more efficient it would also allow designers to see larger trends that span multiple properties or areas—revealing a city’s weak points, identifying under-utilized resources, and discovering synergies. The idea is not dissimilar to New York City’s ClaimStat system: a new initiative by the Comptroller’s office to analyze law suits and claims against the City in order to identify “trouble-prone agencies and neighborhoods”6 . However, instead of merely identifying problems or problem areas, we should work towards algorithms that would actually start to inform solutions and paths towards resolution.

Grow A Lot (prototype), East New York. Image courtesy of ABRUZZO BODZIAK ARCHITECTS

Grow A Lot (prototype), East New York. Image courtesy of ABRUZZO BODZIAK ARCHITECTS

Productive synergies form the basis for Abruzzo Bodziak Architects’s Grow A Lot project, which pairs community-supported greenhouses with vacant, disused land in urban areas identified as food deserts. The tendency for brownfields and undeveloped lots to proliferate in urban areas with little access to fresh food suggests a solution with multiple positive effects. Greenhouses can provide healthy food in an area of high obesity and provide new job-training and educational opportunities while raising the value of vacant land and surrounding properties. It’s win-win situation.

A pilot greenhouse for the East New York neighborhood in Brooklyn takes advantage of a city-owned lot. Although the lot is slated for housing development, it currently lies vacant due to the low unit yield of developing small sites and the high costs of brownfield clean-up. The greenhouse is designed to be assembled quickly, pairing a semi-custom lenticular, billboard-like, facade with a kit-of-parts greenhouse structure that can be re-located should the site become developed. The lenticular fins provide the project’s signage and draw in passers-by while allowing the transparent building skin and outdoor areas to remain protected without the use of unattractive barriers.

A project like this demands public-private partnerships, a team of specialized professionals, community buy-in, creative negotiation with land law, and new models of lease or ownership. It also requires extensive research and outreach, and therefore significant investment, before implementation is even considered. Thus, as the project is extended to further cities across the US, the idea of being able to easily understand the often complex local forces that regulate the possibilities for a given site, but also those that increase potential would be extremely desirable.

The solution to many of the challenges we face in our cities lies in innovative collaboration and matchmaking. For the Grow A Lot project to happen, design, engineering, stewardship, legal contracts, educational expertise and various sources of funding all need to work together. Data streams of different kinds can help to identify and engage the moving pieces in this collaborative process. Perhaps the corollary for security technologies like NORA is that the software could actually suggest projects and assemble teams. One can imagine a hybrid data analysis and social-networking system in which architects identify themselves and initiate the formation of collaborative teams—in the same way institutions identify their areas of influence, cities define areas of zoning, and banks establish their areas and extents of finance.

This open data sharing and analysis can contribute to more livable, healthy cities. The tool will be especially effective in support of networked, semi-permanent projects with many constituencies. Such a system could be a boon to humanitarian work, as well as for-profit development, and in many cases could result in public-private partnerships that have multiple benefits.

The next steps intrigue. Beyond NORA, there are countless other security technologies that could have application in the redefinition of our cities. For example, how could facial recognition technology be exploited in a new way to improve neighborhoods? Perhaps if applied to data like Google Street view, a visual recognition technology could feed even more information back into a system like NORA—making the data on places and buildings even richer, and more up-to-date. The recently publicized collaboration between the Environmental Defense Fund and Google Street View to locate methane leaks around Boston as it photographed the city’s streets 7 , reveals the power of these productive synergies: real-time, location-based information that can be used to address specific urban issues.

But let’s get back to those whistle-blowers. There remain, of course, questions related to the ethics of information ownership and privacy. From a financial perspective alone, one can imagine how increased access to information and inter-related data might affect property valuation, or worse, be used for fraudulent purposes. Widespread government surveillance has been criticized for creating economic loss (due to diminishing confidence in technologies used for commerce), undermining government credibility, and reducing various freedoms8 .

Addressing the privacy concerns, Mike Gilpin, Research Director for the marketing research company Forrester Research, has concluded that such systems will be self-regulating to a certain extent: “the value of combining information from multiple sources will motivate organizations that urgently require better insights from this data to consider how to obtain insights from the datasets they need without violating policies and regulations designed to protect the interests of citizens, while staying away from the legal jeopardy of a ‘fishing expedition.’”9 With a data-rich view of specific properties, even those who seem to be at a disadvantage in terms of resources may be positively affected. Instead of a red-lining effect, investors, developers and businesses can see opportunity as a result of uncovered synergies; cities’ accountability to their citizens can increase along with public awareness of existing issues and potential synergistic improvements. The unlocked data can increase agency for private citizens, land owners, and grassroots organizations with the will to assist in the creation of optimized, highly informed neighborhood transformation.

In a world that is quickly re-urbanizing, the value of comparative data analysis in regards to urban land cannot be underestimated. Of course, its success will depend on the creative, intelligent interpretation of such data, and the ability to make logic of inventive synergy. It’s here that the most forward thinking designers will be initiators, and lead in new ways.

  1. 1. Grewe, Barbara A. “Legal Barriers to Information Sharing: The Erection of a Wall Between Intelligence and Law Enforcement Investigations.” Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, Staff Monograph. August 20, 2004. ^
  2. 2. Brodkin, Jon. “Casino Insider Tells (Almost) All About Security.” Network World. March 7, 2008.–almost–all-about-security.html ^
  3. 3. USDA Report to Congress, “Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food: Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and Their Consequences.” June 2009. ^
  4. 4. ^
  5. 5. Jordan, Robert J. “Federal Bureau of Investigation, Before the United States Senate, Committee on the Judiciary” (testimony). Washington, DC. April 17, 2002. ^
  6. 6. New York Times Editorial Board. “Better Governing Through Data.” New York Times, August 19, 2014. ^
  7. 7. Lefrak, Mikaela. “‘Google Street View Cars’ Map Boston’s Methane Leaks.” July 16, 2014. ^
  8. 8. Zetter, Kim. “Personal Privacy Is Only One of the Costs of NSA Surveillance.” Wired. July 29, 2014. ^
  9. 9. Gilpin. Mike. “Learn From Vegas Casinos How To Get Smarter About Data Analytics.” Blogs. May 12, 2013. ^

Emily Abruzzo, AIA, LEED AP is partner in ABRUZZO BODZIAK ARCHITECTS, recipients of the 2010 Architectural League Prize, AIA New Practices New York 2012, and selected for the New York City Department of Design + Construction Excellence Program. She is a Fellow of The Forum and Institute for Urban Design, and a MacDowell Fellow. Emily earned a Bachelor of Arts at Columbia College and a Master of Architecture at Princeton University, where she received a Certificate in Media and Modernity and was a Fellow at The Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies. Emily is a founding editor of 306090 Books, and currently teaches at the Yale School of Architecture.

Gerald Bodziak, AIA, LEED AP is partner in ABRUZZO BODZIAK ARCHITECTS, recipients of the 2010 Architectural League Prize, AIA New Practices New York 2012, and selected for the New York City Department of Design + Construction Excellence Program. He received his Bachelor of Science from the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning and his Master of Architecture from Princeton University. He is a Fellow of The Forum and Institute for Urban Design, and has taught drawing and construction at Parsons The New School for Design.