Dietmar Offenhuber

How trash can reveal an urban landscape’s ‘invisible realities’

New assistant professor Dietmar Offenhuber wants to make cities and their infrastructures more legible in order to improve their governance.
September 12th, 2013

Dietmar Offen­huber, a newly appointed assis­tant pro­fessor of infor­ma­tion visu­al­iza­tion, strives to unveil the invis­ible real­i­ties of the urban land­scape by map­ping the spa­tial orga­ni­za­tion of people and objects.

His ulti­mate research goal, he said, is to uncover the inner work­ings of city­wide infra­struc­ture sys­tems in order to influ­ence the pol­i­cy­making agenda.

“You can use this data to con­struct meaning in sci­en­tific dis­course as well as in the public policy domain,” said Offen­huber, who holds joint appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Arts, Media & Design and the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties.

Two of his research projects began at an unlikely source: trash. For one project, he worked with waste picker coop­er­a­tives in São Paulo and Recife, Brazil, in order to under­stand their spa­tial orga­ni­za­tion. Using GPS log­gers, he mapped their col­lec­tion routes throughout the city, and then devel­oped a smart­phone appli­ca­tion for a community-​​based recy­cling pro­gram in which res­i­dents and busi­ness owners could request pickup of paper, plastic, and other materials.

The project’s goal, Offen­huber said, was to sup­port the waste pickers on their way to pro­fes­sion­al­iza­tion. “By placing their move­ments ‘on the map,’ it con­veyed a sense of iden­tity for the coop­er­a­tive, pro­viding tan­gible evi­dence of their place in the city,” he observed in an aca­d­emic paper on the project. “The recy­clers’ move­ments are highly selec­tive,” he added. “They focus on spa­tially dis­persed indi­vidual sources—apartments, mar­kets, and businesses—rather than ser­vicing a coherent area.”

For another project, he stuck GPS tracking devices to 3,000 pieces of trash in the city of Seattle and then mapped the garbage’s move­ment over a two-​​month period. Most of the trash remained in the city, Offen­huber said, but some of the cell phones, flu­o­res­cent light bulbs, and bat­teries ended up in states as far-​​flung as Florida, Michigan, and Idaho.

The project won the 2010 National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion Inter­na­tional Sci­ence and Engi­neering Visu­al­iza­tion Chal­lenge and the find­ings shed light on an envi­ron­mental paradox: “We found cases in which the trans­port of recy­cled items con­sumed more energy than it would be pos­sible to cap­ture from the objects them­selves,” Offen­huber explained. The upshot, he said, is that “we have to design a less cen­tral­ized col­lec­tion model that involves the indi­vidual to a larger degree.”

Offen­huber com­pleted both projects as a research fellow and doc­toral can­di­date in the SENSEable City Lab at the Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nology. His fac­ulty appoint­ment aligns with Northeastern’s com­mit­ment to serving as an edu­ca­tional leader in under­standing big data through infor­ma­tion design, a field for which the uni­ver­sity has devel­oped a new inter­dis­ci­pli­nary master’s program.

Offen­huber serves as one of the program’s core fac­ulty mem­bers and praised its unique approach to trans­lating data into visual, phys­ical, and vir­tual forms. “Very few pro­grams in the country focus specif­i­cally on visu­al­iza­tion and data-​​driven modes of design,” he explained, noting his goal of strength­ening the pro­gram through col­lab­o­ra­tions with col­leagues in Northeastern’s Center for Com­plex Net­work Research. “The uni­ver­sity is a very dynamic place.”

- By Jason Kornwitz


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