The Center for Data Innovation spoke with George Garofalakis, co-founder of London-based data visualization startup, SpaceViz. Garofalakis discussed the ways spatial data can tell the story of urban development and change.
Gillian Diebold: What motivated you to start your business?
George Garofalakis: Initially, it started as a necessity since I decided to become a freelancer and the best way to do so was to create a company. Alex, my cofounder, joined not much later and what started as an administrative necessity quickly turned into a business endeavor. So, we created the idea of SpaceViz. As the name suggests, spatial visualization is what we focus on and we both felt that there is a niche area that lies in the crossover between geographic information system (GIS) analysis and graphic design.
Diebold: You’ve worked on projects mapping the city of London. How can spatial data contribute to urban development?
Garofalakis: London is an interesting example of a place with great availability of data from the public sector. For one of our latest projects, Complex City, we used data to investigate the complex character of London throughout time. The fascinating part of using GIS to visualize spatial data is that it creates an epistemic approach to answering questions and identifying patterns. The future of spatial planning definitely lies within the creation of tools that can read, understand and visualize in an effective way really complex datasets from multiple sources. Questions like where should schools or new road systems be introduced or which areas should be intensified are all simple in principle but they are affected by a multitude of different themes. On the other hand, what the project taught us was that a human perspective and the right reading of data should play an important role in decision-making.
Diebold: What is the most interesting insight you’ve found while researching cities?
Garofalakis: At SpaceViz, we treat cities as sophisticated ecosystems of change; multidimensional mosaics of social, technological, economic, environmental, and political forces where change never happens in siloes. The ability of these ecosystems to morph, change, and adapt to change is what we find particularly fascinating. The past eighteen months are a great testament to this. The, often unexpected, ways in which different cities responded, and keep responding, to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic highlight this ability. We witnessed cities considered dense doing well to weather the pandemic by using density to their advantage. We witnessed cities such as Paris, with the idea of the 15-minute city, rethinking their spatial organization and business model. We witnessed cities reacting quickly by repurposing their urban infrastructure and spaces to accommodate new behaviors and needs created by the pandemic. We also witnessed cities having their moment of realization by challenging existing policies and models and by doing so, thriving in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world.
Diebold: What challenges do you find that most businesses encounter when dealing with spatial data?
Garofalakis: The lack of data, especially in places where the whole system of data collection and creation is not yet developed, is a limiting factor to what one can achieve. There is only so much you can do when you lack data, especially when it comes to comparing different places around the world or even within the same country. Another challenging point is that data is created in different ways, leading to datasets that are suitable only for specific scales and have partial information. As a result, there is always the challenge of combining datasets in different scales and of different densities to get a complete picture of the context, the problem, and the potential solutions.
Diebold: How do you see the field of data visualization and spatial analysis changing in the coming years?
Garofalakis: It’s a field that is progressing rapidly with demands and expectations getting higher and higher. The plethora of available tools, online platforms, software and, increasingly, AI applications is getting richer. This is creating a highly complex environment with many stakeholders from different backgrounds. Technology proliferation has transformed the field, leading to more interactive, online-based, and automated methods, processes, and solutions. This trend is here to stay. With datasets becoming better and data analysis becoming faster, more efficient, and more effective, we will see boundaries between data visualization and data simulation becoming increasingly blurred. Ultimately, however, it is the kind of stories that data visualization and spatial analysis tell that will change in the coming years. Stories about sustainability and resilience, digital transformation, the impact of the climate emergency on people, places, spaces, land use, and infrastructure, stories about equity and equality. Although storytelling has always been central in the field, the way in which researchers, practitioners, and decision-makers leverage storytelling to take action and address the challenges that cities and the built environment are facing will also change significantly in the years to come.