New CAF Exhibit Answers The Question “Are You Being Watched?”

Model City

The robots will take over. It’s really only a matter of time until the R2-D2s and C-3POs relegate us to manual labor while they think big thoughts.

CAF Big Data ExhibitThis was my initial reaction to the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s new Chicago City Of Big Data exhibit. The free exhibit in the C.A.F. lobby at 224 South Michigan Avenue opens today (May 9, 2014) and will run through the end of the year.

We’ve become accustomed to our Google searches leaving a virtual trail—hence that banner ad that pops up with information about a product you just looked for on a few days earlier.

Chicago City Of Big Data ExhibitWalk down the aisle of a Jewell-Osco, and your smartphone leaves a vapor trail of where you’ve been. The retailer analyzes that data and changes the store layout accordingly to make sure it’s optimized to get us to pick up more stuff.

So what does big data have to do with architecture and the design of a city? Plenty, it seems.

Lynn Osmond, Chicago Architecture Foundation president and C.E.O.

Lynn Osmond, Chicago Architecture Foundation president and C.E.O.

Lynn Osmond, president and CEO of the C.A.F. officially opened the big data exhibit by explaining just how important the subject is for architecture.

“This has been a real labor of love,” Osmond said at the exhibit opening. “We really wanted to explore the subject of big data. What is it? We wanted to show what data is in the city and how you can use it to make a better city, and make better buildings.”

Osmond is especially happy with the interactive displays anchoring the exhibit. One touch-screen allows you to enter information about your daily online habits to find out how much data you contribute. For example, each time you text the code from a CTA bus stop to find out when the next bus is coming, you’re adding more height to a virtual Mount Everest of data.

The exhibit offers many examples of how big data can be used to improve the design of a city, and offers this interesting concept: good data, used thoughtfully, has the potential to help us transform how we design, build and live in cities.

Behind every successful exhibit is a staffer who’s spent many sleepless nights getting everything just so. For the C.A.F., much of the credit goes to Ingrid Haftel, associate curator.

Ingrid Haftel, associate curator

Ingrid Haftel, associate curator

“We’ve been working on this project for a year and a half,” Haftel said. “Data was something we wanted to explore, and we settled on the concept a year and a half ago.”

The goal, Haftel said, is to get visitors to think about data and the design of Chicago, and urban life.

“And, also, to recognize themselves, that we’re all generating massive amounts of data. We’re all contributing to the massive design of data in the city.”

Data represented on a map of Chicago

Data represented on a map of Chicago

Author: Bill Motchan

Bill Motchan is a writer and photographer, and a former resident of the West Loop. He can be reached at

Share This Post On