Luminous Cities

Telling encoded stories of politics, natural disasters and social movements.

We've come across a lot of nice Flickr visualizations of global cities but never anything quite this comprehensive across space and time: Meet Luminous Cities, a creation of the London-based mapping and digital arts firm TraceMedia, built with support from the Centre for Spatial Analysis & Policy at the University of Leeds and the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at University College London. The project is trying to "uncover the archeology of data traces left by social media" in cities across the globe.

The Flickr tool in particular contains an enormous wealth of data – photos themselves, their location, the topical tags associated with them – that can be spliced in infinite ways and visualized across time to illustrate individual events like a natural disaster, or specific geographies like the one associated with Occupy protesters. TraceMedia initially launched the project last year in London, but recently updated it to include more than 50 global cities, some with Flickr data going back as far as 2004. You can view any city during a specific window of time, or in an animation over time, while simultaneously plotting multiple tags (like in the London map shown above).

Here, for instance, is downtown Detroit, shown between May of 2009 and June of 2013, with a smattering of the 1,181 photos tagged during that time with the only-in-Detroit idiom "urbanexploration." Some of the associated photos are shown at right, with an obvious heavy emphasis on Michigan Central Station.

Here is Manhattan in October and November of last year, showing photos tagged with "sandy" and "hurricanesandy":

Click here and play the timeline at the bottom of the page and you can watch all of those dots suddenly appear in the middle of the animation, only to disappear almost entirely by the end of November.

Here is a similar historically interesting moment in time from London, taken in the summer months of 2011, when the city experienced a rash of riots, variously noticeable in the terms "fire," "destruction," "riot" and more:

Using time, geography and language, these maps tell encoded stories about how events are tied to place, as well as how the same space is often simultaneously used for multiple purposes by different people. You could repeat these experiments in any number of these other cities (and if you find some good patterns, please share them in the comments section below).

Here is one last map illustrating the many uses of a particularly symbolic space: the area around the National Mall in Washington, shown throughout 2012:

The fire-engine red dots show the city's three mains pockets of Occupy protests, in McPherson Square, Freedom Plaza, and near the U.S. Capitol. The dark green suggests some kind of Abu Ghraib protest. If you watch the timeline animation here, you'll see the sudden sprouting of femnists from the steps of the White House to the Washington Monument, as well as, later, a Million Puppet March to the capitol. "11november2012" is a reference to Veteran's Day, and most of those lime-green dots cluster around the war memorials on the west end of the National Mall. And all those pink dots around the Tidal Basin? Those are the Cherry Blossoms that appear for only about two weeks in the spring. With the timeline, you can watch them bloom and fade as well.

All maps courtesy of TraceMedia.

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