The urban geographical imagination in the age of big data


This paper explores the variety of ways that emerging sources of (big) data are being used to re-conceptualize the city, and how these understandings of what the urban is shapes the design of interventions into it. Drawing on work on the performativity of economics, this paper uses two vignettes of the ‘new urban science’ and municipal vacant property mapping in order to argue that the mobilization of Big Data in the urban context doesn’t necessarily produce a single, greater understanding of the city as it actually is, but rather a highly variegated series of essentialized understandings of the city that render it knowable, governable and intervene-able. Through the construction of new, data-driven urban geographical imaginaries, these projects have opened up the space for urban interventions that work to depoliticize urban injustices and valorize new kinds of technical expertise as the means of going about solving these problems, opening up new possibilities for a remaking of urban space in the image of these sociotechnical paradigms. Ultimately, this paper argues that despite the importance of Big Data, as both a discourse and practice, to emerging forms of urban research and management, there is no singular or universal understanding of the urban that is promoted or developed through the application of these new sources of data, which in turn opens up meaningful possibilities for developing alternative uses of Big Data for understanding and intervening in the city in more emancipatory ways.

Big Data & Society 4 (1): 1-14
Taylor Shelton
Assistant Professor of Geography