Interview with Sarah Williams, The Civic Data Design Lab, MIT

September 29, 2015 | | View Comments

This Friday, Northeastern University hosts our October Design Museum Morning with Sarah Williams. Sarah is  currently an Assistant Professor of Urban Planning and the Director of the Civic Data Design Lab at MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning School. She works with data, maps, and mobile technologies to develop interactive design and communication strategies that bring urban policy issues to broader audiences. 

We spoke her about the inclusion of design in her research and it’s ability to help inspire social change in advance of her presentation.  In return she asks us “Isn’t design always happening?”


How important is design in bringing urban policy issues to the general public?

Data visualizations expose underlying systems that generate planning policies. Design allows us to effectively communicate these often complex policies to broader groups of people, which in turn provides a way for citizens to engage in civic topics that might have been previously hard to understand. Ultimately design increases the ability for the public to engage in civic topics and, therefore, are an essential part of planning and policy debate.


What are The Civic Data Design Lab’s most recent projects?

One of the most recent projects everyone in my lab is excited about is Digital Matatus. Just a month ago, the data developed through this project was launched in Google maps, making it the first informal transit in which Google has provided transit routing directions – this was only possible because of the data we collected.

The Digital Matatus project leveraged the ubiquitous nature of cellphone technology in developing countries to collect data in informal transit, gave it out freely and in the process spurred innovation and improved services for citizens. Conceived out of a collaboration between Kenyan and American universities and the technology sector in Nairobi, this project captured transit data for Nairobi, developed mobile routing applications and designed a new transit map for the city. The data, maps, and apps are free and available to the public, transforming the way people navigate and think about their transportation system.

The lab also released a data visualization tool that helps to teach math issues using social justice topics. This project, called City Digits was developed in partnership with Brooklyn College through an NSF-funded STEM grant. The tool allows youth to explore the issue of the lottery by looking at every how much people spend and win on lottery tickets, using the data from every bodega in New York City. The results show the odds are always against you.


Have there been any projects you’ve worked on where seeing the final design has surprised you and your team?

Perhaps how people use the designs we make might be surprising. I think our team was most surprised by how the design of the Digital Matatu map allowed it to be acquired and used by the diverse public in Nairobi. After the release of the map it has been downloaded over 5,000 times and everyone from the Mayor of Nairobi to people living in Kibera, and informal settlement in Nairobi, use the map.

If you are asking if the results of my data analytics ever surprised me, I would say that happens often. One of the great things of data analysis as it helps to expose issues that might not otherwise have been seen.


What comes first, data or design?

Hmm, isn’t design is always happening? For example, I have to design data collection tools and strategies for accessing the data I need. When I generate graphics, though, the data comes first – I have to see what it tells me before I can make my design.


How do you choose your projects?

I choose projects that I think can have a positive impact on the world.


We’re really looking forward to seeing you at Northeastern on Friday morning! If you can’t make this one, come along to our November Design Museum Morning with Jef Leon from Bergmeyer. Jef contributed to our Design For Dining exhibit and is renown for his work in consumer environment design. Reserve your spot today so you don’t miss out!