MIT Researchers 3D Printed a Scale Model of the College to Visualize Big Data

And they think it could be the future of smart city planning.

Jordan Pearson

Jordan Pearson

Image: Weber/Gadepally

Big data—massive data sets that can be queried for specific information—can be difficult to wrap your head around. Researchers at MIT used 3D printing to manufacture a mini version of their campus to visualise and make sense of geolocated data, and they say the concept could be used in urban planning.

LuminoCity, the printed miniature in question, was designed by Zachary Weber and Vijay Gadepally, researchers at MIT's Lincoln Laboratory. The device projects geotagged points of data onto a plastic mockup of a city from below, and serves as a proof of concept for how data can be visualised spatially.

For the purposes of a paper, which is  available on the arXiv preprint server and was presented at last week's IEEE High Performance Extreme Computing conference, Weber and Gadepally collected thousands of tweets and mined them for locational data. After parsing the tweets' locations of origin on the MIT campus (down to the building), they were placed on LuminoCity's software grid and projected onto the mockup in an array of colours.

The data can eventually be used to alleviate traffic hot spots

LuminoCity is still in the prototype stage, but it's already found applications in data research at MIT. In July, LuminoCity was used to visualise gas and particulate levels around campus, which were detected and measured by an array of sensors designed by students. The researchers see the device as being of further use to MIT administrators, as well.

"For example, this data set will be mined to display data that may be important for administrators at MIT who wish to know about patterns on campus through key-word searches and topic clustering," Weber and Gadepally wrote. "Other demonstrations may include animating Twitter traffic volume as a function of time and space to provide insight into campus patterns or life."

Visualizing data is something humanity has done for centuries, and new technologies like virtual reality and 3D printing are making it easier and more engaging than ever before. Now that major cities like New York are turning to huge data sets and the internet of things to manage information on a range of municipal concerns like traffic and energy consumption, being able to make sense of it all is a key concern. And with a future of cramped megacity living looming aheadbig data is about to get very big, indeed.

According to Weber and Gadepally, LuminoCity could be scaled up to provide data visualization for an entire city, making it a potential tool for urban development. If a city is trying to analyze traffic patterns in a busy neighbourhood, for example, city planners could wheel out LuminoCity and project relevant data culled from traffic lights, social media, mobile phones, and more.

"The ability to project these varied data sources onto a 3D representation of the area in question can rapidly aid in gaining insight that can be used to alleviate traffic hot spots," the authors wrote.

The internet of things is predicted to explode over the next few years, and experts are predicting that internet-connected devices will outnumber humans 3-to-1 within a decade. That's a lot of devices, and a ton of data to draw from. We're going to need some novel ways to parse all of it, and LuminoCity is one possible tool.