Richard Saul Wurman is a restless man. After creating TED talks, tiring of the format, selling it, launching another blockbuster conference aimed at more organic conversation among intellectual powerhouses, his latest project moves from people to places. It still carries through some of those hallmark qualities from his earlier ventures: harnessing the power of the internet, putting disparate places in conversation with each other and gathering up interesting bits of information for others to synthesize.
The Urban Observatory, launched in conjunction with Jack Dangermond of ESRI and Jon Kamen of Radical Media, was meant to solve a simple problem: “You can’t look at Sao Paolo next to Shanghai on Google Maps. You can’t get comparative patterns,” Wurman told Fast Company’s Co.Design.
The interactive website, unveiled in July, allows users to compare maps of cities side by side using a variety of different metrics, from housing density to flood zones to transit access. It joins other digital mapping websites like the transit-focused AllTransit, but the goal here is to compare the footprint of each metric city to city to gain new insight into common urban challenges.
The data sources are diverse, from AccuWeather and the Trust for Public Land to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. There are some gaps; Houston, for example, doesn’t have a map under the ‘Ports’ category. But Wurman plans to grow the site.
“It should be 100 cities, connected to a source that updates it like an app,” he told Co.Design. “Cities could learn from the mistakes and failures of others.”