Data Studies

The quietest place on Earth is the Anechoic Test Chamber at Orfield Laboratories, Inc. Minneapolis, Minnesota. It is well known that no person has managed to stay in that chamber longer than ten minutes.” —Robyn Gershon

There is no such thing as empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see and to hear. In fact, try as we may to make silence, we cannot.” —John Cage, experimental musician

Noise and its corollary, quiet, are both concepts and experiences. As acoustic phenomena, they can be assessed qualitatively and quantitatively. Noise and quiet are indeed possible to measure: those who do so tell us that many everyday New York City events involve noise levels that are dangerous for the human ear.1 Many of these scientists seek to establish thresholds and norms, including legal and regulatory ones, for exposure to noise.

It is no surprise that science has not won the battle against noise in the city. The qualitative experiences of noise and quiet differ radically from person, by time, and by place. There are huge gaps between what some scientists call “unwanted” noise and the sounds—many of them loud and intrusive—that are happily accepted parts of urban life. In fact, it may be impossible to mediate what we call the “culture of noise” and the scientific, juridical regulation of noise. However, much work can, and needs to be done at the borders of noise: between the wanted and the undesired, the articulated and the unintelligible, and the necessary and the superfluous.

For stillspotting nyc, the Spatial Information Design Lab challenged 15 graduate students from the Architecture, Urban Design, and Urban Planning programs at Columbia University to investigate the concept of stillness in a fast-moving city. The seminar established a theoretical and working framework that fluctuated between the sciences and humanities from week to week: the first half of the class involved lectures and reading with speakers such as Arline Bronzaft (Chair of the Noise Committee, Mayor’s Committee on the Environment of New York City), Les Blomberg (Founder and Director, Noise Pollution Clearing House), Saul Fisher (Interim Associate Provost and Visiting Associate Professor of Philosophy, Mercy College), Robyn Gershon (Professor of Clinical Sociomedical Sciences, School of Nursing; Associate Dean for Research Resources, Department of Sociomedical Science, Columbia University), Branden Joseph (Frank Gallipoli Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art, Department of Art History and Archeology, Columbia University), and Daniel Perlin (artist). Student work in the second half of the semester required inventing strategies for collecting data about silence and noise, and visualizing this data into concepts. As a result, the work questioned and redefined conventional ideas about noise, information, the city, and imagery.

Spatial Information Design Lab

The Spatial Information Design Lab (SIDL) was founded in 2004 as an interdisciplinary research unit in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University.

SIDL is a think and action tank specializing in the display of spatial information about contemporary cities and events. The lab works with data about space—numeric data combined with narratives and images to design compelling visual presentations about our world today. The projects in the lab focus on linking social data with geography to help researchers and advocates communicate information clearly, responsibly, and provocatively.

Spatial Information Design is a name for new ways of working with the vast quantity of statistical and other data available about the contemporary city. By reorganizing tabular data using unique visualization techniques, and locating it geographically, SIDL tries to correlate disparate items of information and picture the patterns and networks they create. Co-Directors Laura Kurgan and Sarah Williams believe that putting data on a map can open new spaces for action and new options for intervention, as the often unseen shapes and forms of life in the city becomes visible.

1. According to Columbia Mailman School of Public Health researcher Robyn Gershon, 20 million adults and 10 million children in the United States suffer from “noise-induced hearing loss.”

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