Obscured by Lego

MIT is using Lego in urban planning:

MIT researchers unveiled something earlier this month that will please toddlers and serious urban planners alike. It’s a model of Dudley Square—a neighborhood in the greater Boston area—about the size of a kitchen table. The roads, sidewalks, bus stations, and buildings are all made out of Lego blocks. Wee Lego figures represent pedestrians. Laid over it all is a computer-generated projection of the actual neighborhood, filling in the details of current green space and traffic in Dudley Square.

The project is a collaboration between the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning, the Changing Places group at the MIT Media Lab, and the Barr Foundation, all of whom are are using the new tool to test how bus-rapid transit systems could affect the city. The test includes three components, each representing the city of Boston on a different scale. There’s the Lego model of Dudley Square, another 3-D model (also made of Legos) of a Boston street, and a touchscreen interface to illustrate the potential effects of different plans on a regional scale—such as how changes to public transit might affect people’s access to jobs.

It’s important, though, not to characterize the Lego here as a planning tool. It’s nothing of the kind. The real work is happening elsewhere, by algorithm:

On the touchscreen, for example, viewers can point to a specific part of the city and have the computer tell them how many jobs they can get to from that spot via proposed public transportation. They can then fiddle with the model to see how different transit systems and route networks affect their commute.

“And then they can say, ‘Well, what if I added these new transit routes, and what if I change the frequency of the buses, and how much would it cost?’” explains Chris Zegras, professor of transportation and urban planning at MIT, who leads the project team. The information, he adds, come from publicly available data…

And what’s more accessible and familiar than Legos? “The platform lowers the the threshold of participation because every kid knows how to move a Lego piece,” says Phil Tinn, a masters student at MIT, who is also part of the team.

The CityScope project stands or falls on its data, not on those little plastic bricks.

So where is the data? It’s “publicly available,” says the publicity. I emailed the project’s contact person, who eventually pointed me to this site for app developerssome relevant documentation here – which… let’s just say it’s not as accessible as one might like. You’ll need to register for an API key and brush up on your programming.

As I’ve written about elsewhere, the Lego bricks here function as a persuasive game, one that encodes programmers’ assumptions about urban life and gives their predictions the appearance of results. The purpose of the Lego here is to make things look cute, and tidy, and… convincing. The information that powers the simulation is considerably less scrutable, which seems like it should be a bigger problem than it currently is.

The assumptions that turn data into results might be accurate. But I’m not sure that I or anyone else can tell.