Open Source Mapping meeting at Maklab

Yesterday I had the honour of meeting with Bruce Newlands (director of Glasgow architects Kraft and founder of MAKlab) and Tim Foster (Open Street Map (OSM) Scotland member and all-round expert with open source mapping technology). The topic of discussion was Bruce’s exciting plan to map out ‘stalled spaces’ in Glasgow, with a view to engaging locals and community groups in the design and construction of new uses for these left-overs of the urban fabric.

In his Facebook invitation to the event, Bruce had described the venture as an exercise in open source mapping. A common theme of discussion between the three of us was the challenges faced to architects, community groups and other interested parties in accessing highly closed data on the city. Glasgow City Council has proved notorious for limiting access to the data it holds. The Urban Model (a highly detailed digital model of the city centre and Clyde valley) is a typical example. This technology would be an incredible resource to local citizens looking to produce creative solutions to local problems. However, the council holds a strict licence over the data and fees for its use start at a staggering £200 for the most basic version of one city block. This is a technology (funded in part through tax-payer money) that is reserved for private enterprise and its use is priced accordingly. For Bruce, an open source equivalent of this data collection provides an opportunity to circumvent some of these challenges, as well as providing an opportunity to build a community of individuals and groups keen to explore new uses of space in some of the city’s most deprived areas.

The Glasgow Urban Model, created for Glasgow City Council

There exists already (through OSM and similar crowd-sourced technologies) a vast wealth of quantitative data on the city that provides a starting point to a creative process that fascinates me in my search to understand the impacts of the open source model on the practice and profession of architecture.

Bruce’s idea for this project envisions a three staged process; a form of creative practice that I have discussed in my thesis.

1 – Crowd-sourced data collection

Any good creative project starts with thorough research, and there exists through OSM an opportunity to build a common resource for architects, designers, community groups and local people by using crowd-sourced techniques of data collection. Tim, who is an avid contributor of mapping information on OSM, described the community that exists in Scotland that regularly meet to map areas in what he termed mapping parties. These social gatherings offer a positive prototype of a community-engaged event that might see university students, local practitioners, school pupils or any other number of interested parties descending on a pre-arranged area to map and gather salient data (photography, sketches, basic topography – all as any on-site architect might try and collect in the early stages of a design process). The data generated through this mass-survey would no doubt be a detailed and fascinating portrait of the area, but the realisation of this as a social event is particularly appealing as a generator of local interest in a process that is far-too-often exclusive and elitist. There are the beginnings of an architect-community relationship that goes far beyond typical routes of consultation and exhibition.

Tim outlined the technology that underlies OSM, which is easily editable by those with relatively limited computer skills. Through the use of tagging, it was quickly easy to imagine bolting on data relevant to the stalled spaces project onto the wealth of pre-existing open data on OSM. This data would feed into the next part of the process.

2 – Collaborative design exploration and development

The community that is generated in the data collection stage is not left at the wayside as the project moves onto generating potential new uses for the identified stalled spaces. MAKlab would act as a hub for design development as well as discussions between interested parties on the direction of any idea. The data collection would generate enough information to construct physical models, taking advantage of MAKlab’s considerable fabrication resources, that would make for tools in discussions between those collaborating.

How this amazing community resource might evolve the way architects and other designers seek to engage locals in community projects is a fascinating aspect of this project. That MAKlab is based in a public building and is free to all is a great start. That the staff there have experience in sharing and developing skills in fabrication and design with those commonly unfamiliar with and outsiders to the creative arts is even better. I can think of no better place for a community such as the one Bruce envisions to be based.

3 – Fabrication and implementation of interventions

The ambition of this project is not limited to generating speculative ideas. Bruce’s plans to expand MAKlab’s facilities is in line with the hope of providing tools for the fabrication of usable temporary structures that could be one type of intervention that this project might generate. There already exists around MAKlab a great number of hobbyists and professional ‘makers’; individuals with a wide variety of skills and interests. This collective pool of talent as a starting infrastructure suggests that the possibility of this project bearing fruitful creative output is high indeed. Quite what form this creativity might take is entirely up for discussion, but with the MAKlab and its staff, volunteers and regulars users all involved, it would seem there is no limit to where it may go.

Where next?

As there were only three of us around the table, Bruce, Tim and I felt it a good start to set out a few of the major questions and problems in developing some of the ideas we had discussed, so that we could meet at a later date with a larger group. Some of these are technical issues; quite how to make use of OSM as a tool in the collection of data, what data would be best to collect, and how it would be tagged and organised. Others issues were of a more social nature; what groups or organisations to approach regarding collaboration, where and when we would plan to organise our first mapping event, and what form this event might take. Another major consideration was quite how to define stalled spaces in the first place, so that a directory of sorts might be made and types of interventions hypothesised. These are all issues I plan to ruminate on over the coming days.

From the perspective of my own research and interest in the culture and processes of open source, there are a number of other issues I plan to explore, possibly through further blog posts on the project.

Open source licences and the legal landscape of collaborative, community production

Bruce, Tim and I spoke fairly extensively of the importance of the idea of openness; that, in order to maximise the opportunities for non-commercial architects and designers, as well as community groups and citizens to develop creative projects, there needs to be a larger collection of data and research on local areas than currently exists in the public domain. Much of my research has focussed on how open source communities have developed new licensing structures (GPL, Creative Commons etc.) to protect their works from exploitation by commercial entities and ensure that sharing of data and ideas is paramount. I am keen to explore the relevance of legal frameworks in regard to this project. As Bruce envisions the creation of usable, enclosed structures as one possible output of this project (straying in to the domain of architectural law), I am curious to understand how open source licenses and other legal issues that surround a project of this nature interact with existing and more established building legislation.

Open source architecture and the sharing of creative solutions

This openness expands into another area of my research. While all of the data that feeds into these creative responses is taken from (and added to) open source resources (OSM, wikis etc.) I would be keen to encourage a similar liberal sharing of the ideas and interventions produced. The Open Architecture Network (or Worldchanging platform) already represents one prototype of a ‘database’ of architectural ideas and designs, all of which are shared through varying Creative Commons licenses, and are in theory, there for all to use and build upon. There is little doubt that this project will result in some ingenious, fascinating and positive work, and I am excited to explore how open source processes can be used to share these creations in a meaningful way. How this sharing might work, and how others, outside of the project might receive or make use of the creations is an under-researched area within the field of architecture, and this project could represent an interesting way to test some of these questions. MAKlab already has links to the open hardware community, a group that already provides hints to the physical productivity that can come from sharing not just data, but designs as well.

There are also questions of who is the author of a production in a highly collaborative project; who retains rights to the design as well as liability (highly important when faced with the production of usable structures). Is it the group based in MAKlab who are responsible, the local community, or a more complex mixture of people?

I am incredibly excited as to what might be in store for this project and feel lucky to be getting on at the ground floor. With a bit of luck and a lot of elbow grease, I should hopefully be discussing this project a great deal on this (rather neglected) blog over the coming months.

Duncan

Ps. While at the meeting I was also lucky enough to witness the birth of this rather fierce looking chap!

Second post in and I’m already well past my self-dictated update schedule. Nevertheless, in this post I wish to set the scene a little more as to the nature of my research and the ways I plan to go about it.

First of all I should explain the structure of my course and the work expected from it. I am an MPhil in Architecture student. As such, my work is equivalent to two years of a PhD programme. I was awarded my place on the programme with the expectation that I develop a piece of unique and valuable research that in some way contains a design component; that is, my research uses processes of design as a method of some sort.

My proposal for this programme centred around my personal interests in the nature of design processes, and the relatively novel field of open source production. This area of research has not differed, but has gradually, with assistance from my supervisors, become greatly more specific, an exploration in definition; what is an open source architectural practice and what impact might this have on the wider architectural profession?

In order to answer these questions, or at least provide some new insight into open source from an architectural perspective, my intention is to explore the history and definitions of open source as it has come to be understood in the field from which it emerged, computer software development. The term has expanded beyond this field and has been adopted to a number of different ends; from writing encyclopedias (Shirky, 2005) to politics (Rushkoff, 2003). A number of architects and urbanists have begun to develop projects around the collaborative model of open source and these nascent forms of open source architectural practice provide opportunities to understand how the specific constraints of the design and creation of architecture and urban form have altered the definition of open source as applied in this context. Arcbazar, Wikihouse, Open Plans, Open Source Ecology, The Open Architecture Network, and the One Thousand Square Project all have elements of open source production embedded in their make-up, be it a collaborative design process, the open way in which key decisions are made, or the way in which project data and ideas are shared and distributed. By understanding what is “open” about these projects a definition of an open source architectural practice can begin to form.

The Open Architecture Network (recently re-branded as Worldchanging), which is a communication and distribution tool developed by the charity Architecture for Humanity, is a particularly key example in my eyes, of an architectural organisation pushing the possibilities of open source. It is my hope that a central part of my research will be a thorough ethnographic study of this design community. I hope to understand what sets apart their methods and working practices from traditional architectural practices and how the use of a web-based communication platform, Creative Commons licenses to distribute design drawings and data, and more transparent and less-hierarchic governance in project decisions, alters the day-to-day role of ‘open source architects’.

With this understanding I hope to build a profile of an emergent culture of architects and designers that might allow me to speculate on where these changes might take the architectural profession. It is my belief that the open source model, which is built around the open distribution of data and ideas and more informal roles and organisational hierarchy, is fundamentally at odds with the codified and regulated nature of modern professional architecture, that defends its interests through copyright protection and carefully defines ordered practice structures. What might emerge from this collision of models is difficult to anticipate but evidence from both inside and outside of the architectural community suggests that open source is not to be overlooked or underestimated as a potential avenue for advancing and expanding the social role and impact of architects.

Through my research and dissertation I hope to explore whether my optimism that open source can provide new and lasting ideas for architecture is valid. It could simply be a passing fashion that finds no meaningful ground. Alternatively, as architects are becoming increasingly marginalised in the production of the built environment, it may provide a model that encourages greater relationships between architects, professional in related fields, and the general public, and a renewed culture of collaboration and sharing of ideas that is enriched through new media.

In later posts I will discuss some of the specific challenges of an open source architectural practice. I’m interested in understanding how novel copyright systems like Creative Commons might protect architectural creations, who is the responsible party when a design is shared by numerous individuals rather than a single practice, and what might motivate architects to contribute to open source architecture projects to begin with.

 

References :

Rushkoff, D. (2003) Open source democracy: how online communication is changing offline politics. Demos.

Shirky, C. (2005) Epilogue: Open Source outside the domain of software. In: J. Feller, B. Fitzgerald, S. A. Hissam, & K. R. Lakhani eds. Perspectives on Free and Open Source Software. MIT Press, pp.483–488.

This is the first of what should hopefully be a regular series of updates, related stories, tangential ideas, and non-sequiters, centred around my work as an MPhil of Architecture student, researching open source and architectural practice. As the blog title and subheading above suggests, my research is engaged in understanding what impact ideas of open source production and attendant concepts of authorship, motivation, coordination and governance (amongst many others), might have upon the practice and profession of architecture.

To keep this introduction short, I’ll point you in the direction of my growing draft dissertation which I have placed online as a wiki. My hope is that interested observers and those knowledgeable in the fields I am exploring and drawing ideas from might comment upon my work and expand my understanding. Call it something of a didactic experiment in the potential of opening the source of your work…

This blog should function as a log of my unfolding research (the methods of which I will describe in later posts) and a space to post projects, writing, images and more of things that contribute to the discussion surrounding open source and architecture, or simply have caught my eye.

My intention is to keep this space as up to date as I can. Hopefully I should have something to report every couple of days. In the next post I’ll go into a bit more depth about my ideas and the structure of my research project. See you then!