communal hack
— big data & community in architecture

research paper 
in cooperation with Mariana Riobom

presented & published within the

urban living labs for public space.
a new generation of planning?

at KU Leuven in 2016


Data collection offers a possibility to use citizens‘ behavioural patterns to understand common and individual needs. The digital footprint is a fundamental element to understanding the population’s demands on an analytical basis. In order to react more precisely to contemporary challenges we face, such as the refugee crisis, this potential knowledge base needs to be integrated into architectural planning strategies. Citizens are regarded as the primary source of information in a system that analyses data that their behaviour produces on a real-time basis. Besides the positive aspects of understanding — or even foreseeing — trends that could impact architectural requirements, data security has to be given profound consideration when assessing data due to potentially problematic breeches of privacy.

Society Lab serves as a case study project for data analysis in architecture. It is a platform that connects and merges the current request — offer situation of data and knowledge: Asylum seekers that are searching for housing are enabled to access a local information network by an application as a principal digital instrument. This app, which is focused on real-time output and easy handling, allows the asylum seekers to inform, exchange, look for and find contact, accommodation or work even before arriving at their destination.


#Architecture #Smart Cities #Big Data #Community-Based Design #Adaptive Place Design.

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contextual framework

Throughout humankind’s history, data collection has been a popular way to document and control information. The Romans held a censuses to acquire and monitor information about its population systematically. However, prior to the digital age, collecting and interpreting information was an extremely expensive and slow process. It was not continuous in time, the frequent rise of new variables meant that the course of collecting data had to be started over again.

The beginning of the digital age brought about unprecedented possibilities for gathering, analysing and storing an exponentially growing and unstructured massive volume of data (Big Data) on a constant and real-time basis. By 2025 approximately 80 billion devices will be connected to the internet, according to IDC. To put that into context, at the beginning of 2016 there were nearly 11 billion devices connected.  The expanding number of smart devices with GPS and internet connection, as well as spatial aerial sensors are instances of Big Data generators. IDC provides further predictions on the growth of digital data that results from the growing number of sensors and devices aforementioned. Until 2020 the total amount of digital data created worldwide is supposed to increase explosively up to 44 zettabytes. (Kanellos, 2016)

Evidently, Big Data is a developing source for evidence-based decision making, since it enables the evaluation of past and present circumstances. Nearly all aspects of life have been affected by computer science influence and Big Data collection. Google engines are able to forecast flu trends based on what its users are searching on the internet.

In Singapore, for example, the local governments use real-time traffic situations to regulate road toll prices, and therefore, prompt its users to avoid driving in the most hectic periods, by increasing the fees. Furthermore, examples like Waze — a GPS-based geographical navigation program — illustrate how the real-time transmission of data, optimises the contributions of its millions of users and the company towards a common goal: “to outsmart traffic” ( Feb 2017). By processing significant amounts of data from user location related to time, Waze can map and predict traffic and the most convenient routes on a global scale in real-time. In addition, Waze users are able to share road reports on accidents and any other relevant information, therefore optimising the resources available and creating a real-time digital database in the form of  community-edited maps.

Another level of given content from the user, generated through social media for example, is the socio-anthropological layer of information including emotional impact or feelings (see like, love, dislike on facebook) related to a particular place, shop, idea, etc. In this sense, it is important to consider the term ‘perception of physical spaces’. The term is referring to the perception of traditional living spaces and potentially inscribed meanings for the user. Such concepts can be discovered and understood through gathered data and information regarding the perception of private/public space and the individual versus the community.

Social media serves here as an instrument strengthening one of its very own principles: social interaction and exchange. It is of everyone's best interest that the means available are used in a collaborative fashion, consenting virtually everybody to generate and experience information and content. As Walter Isaacson suggests, the emergence of the digital age was promoted and sustained by governments in partnership with industry, military, and academic establishments. But simultaneously, the origin of the digital age sprung from within groups that would typically be sceptical of the consolidated power, as single operating hackers and community oriented individuals (2014).

That points out that the digital sphere always was about the communal experience, the sharing of knowledge and exchange beyond different backgrounds. Through the transfer into the physical world this unrestricted integrative exchange for and of everyone can improve our everyday lives if it is handled carefully. Considering security as well as privacy issues is an integral part of the topic and will be discussed in a separate chapter hereafter.

Big Data & security

The dualistic perception of the digitalization and the so-called Industry 4.0 reaches from the promise of salvation to demonisation of anything digital. Advocates of the digital age argue that through newly evolving technologies our lives will become easier, society is going to be more democratic, and participation of the individual is easier than it has ever been before. In contrast, the critics of the now emerging 4th digital-industrial revolution see jobs disappearing due to automation, the consolidation of existing power structures and the danger of the overall transparent citizen. (Littger, 2017)

Both perspectives need to be taken seriously, as the ensuing technological development is dependent on the society as well as on the societal framework that underpins it. It is vital, to be aware of the the wider context of digitalization to understand the polarized views that surround the topic and the ways in which the socioeconomic and political landscape inform this opinions.

Arising questions, amongst many others, that need to be tackled and answered — not just in any project using Big Data, but in general to secure our future social cohabitation — are as follows: How can we secure the open and transparent handling of personal data? Who can access and analyse the data-sets of individuals? How can awareness of data, its traces and meanings, be established in the public mind? Just with an existing base of knowledge about how Data Mining works, how Algorithms influence one’s perception (buzzword: Digital Bubble), and how much and what kind of data of an individual is gathered, one can reach ‘digital maturity’. On one side this maturity is in the hands of the users — thus the data provider — and on the other, data collectors, data miners and decision makers need to make sure sensitive personal data is not compromised. Each user has its own privacy concerns, hence the privacy-preserving approaches adopted by one user are generally different from those adopted by others (Xu, 2014).

Recent events — mainly political — around the world show, that fears surrounding individual security are not limited to digital advancements: a globally represented legislative body is necessary to ensure that society has a common base to share and communicate in the digital world — as well as in the physical world. It is clear that there is a universal need for respecting the right to privacy and free speech regardless of the place and form of expression.

The role that smart devices play in this discussion is exemplarily shown with a recent ongoing political debate in Germany. The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (Bamf) in cooperation with The Federal Ministry of the Interior (BMI) is about to hand in a legislative proposal that is thought to enhance the enforcement of expulsion. According to estimations of the BMI 50%—60% of asylum seekers would have been considered for a data read-out of their smartphones in 2016 to facilitate identification. (Kampf and Leyendecker, 2017) The proposal is debated controversially and shows the complexity of the topic as well as the difficulties to localize borders. 

If we see the role of the architect as part of the decision makers, "[...] the privacy-preserving objective is to make a correct judgement about the credibility of the data mining results he or she’s got. To achieve this goal, one can utilize provenance techniques to trace back the history of the received information, or build classifier to discriminate true information from false information." (XU, 2014)

Big Data & its significance in architecture

With few exceptions — the architectural field seems not to be adhering to this very trend of integrating computer science know-how in the form of Big Data collection in its methods and processes. For the most part, Big Data collection has been instrumental in helping to solve problems that although might be relevant to the architectural discourse are not architectonic per se, such as the traffic related issues mentioned above, infrastructure networks, mobility traces, climate and pollution, etc. Computer science in the form of Big Data collection and Machine Learning offer an extensive ground for experimentation and improvement to the architectural field. Nonetheless, in today’s architectural practices the classical and traditional approaches are prevailing. Most architects are missing the chance to participate in the current discourse actively and thereby the opportunity to influence the direction the field goes.

The present paper intends to address the issues as mentioned above by the integration of technological know-how in combination with new ways of thinking spatial design and architecture. The use of data is particularly valuable as it provides a source of objective analytical information to support the design of living spaces. The term ‘living spaces’ refers to the physical environment and infrastructure to be introduced as an output of the data collection inputs — presenting architecture based on performance and needs rather than form.

The vast spread of ‘intelligent assets’ offers plenty of potential within the Architectural field, particularly when it comes to the citizen’s ability to intervene in the planning and decision-making processes which need to be explored. Additionally, the Internet of Things (IoT) culture and its ability to decentralise information enables citizens to administer their impact better. As a result, one can undoubtedly argue that the IoT culture — that gives one the chance to express oneself, regardless social status or background — is an agent for equality among citizens “Mobile phone platforms are becoming key IoT enablers and hold great potential for unlocking circular economy value in this space [...] it is critical that an increasing number of people – users and developers of IoT – are involved in making big data and information public. In other words, big data should become open data to have a big impact on our lifestyle and cities.” (Ratti, 2016)

Thus, to better understand the challenges of collaborative, participatory design approaches it is ultimately ineluctable to liberate the ‘mythology of the architect visionary’. This cultural fascination of the authorial artist ignited in the XVI century by Vasari  (Ratti, 2015) that has prevailed in the imagination of professional architects, architectural students and the public at large is no-longer-appropriate. Per contra, such a paradigm has proven to fall short in responding to the citizen’s needs, particularly at the community level.

The efficiency and beauty of vernacular architecture, for instance, is an example of a successful architectural manifestation that confirms the idea that, the success of architectural outcomes does not necessarily depend on the existence of a single idealised mind. Examples, like those referred to in Bernard Rudofsky’s book, ‘Architecture without Architects’, in 1965, demonstrate that architecture made by not formally-schooled architects can generate fruitful results. The author elaborates in his book on the success of vernacular architecture, called ‘non-pedigreed architecture’(1965), that shows architecture in the course of time as an often collaborative resilient design effort. Integrating the communal and integrative aspect of architecture afresh — fueled through the use of new digital tools — architects are enabled to gain a complete new set of contextual parameters for their design process. 

In summary, incorporating computer science in the form of Big Data collection, Machine Learning, as well as IoT, changes the architectural discourse fundamentally and brings changes in the way citizens relate to architecture as a discipline and as an outcome as soon as they are participating in design processes themselves. This demands a revision of the role of the architect, mainly concerning authorship. The architect appears more like an ‘orchestrator’ (Ratti, 2015) of the different parts involved, rather than the single mastermind behind a given project as he or she is perceived today.

Society Lab. Outsmarting housing solutions — together

In October 2015, upon the ‘European migrant crises’ the Museum of Finnish Architecture (MFA), in collaboration with the Finnish Association of Architects (SAFA), launched the international architectural competition From Border to Home seeking housing solutions for the 35.000 asylum seekers expected to enter the country. Participants were challenged to present tangible solutions with a focus on the promotion of a positive social impact. In addition, the brief asked for long-term living arrangements. The jury consisted of architects, experts from the Ministry of the Interior, the Finnish Red Cross and the Finnish Refugee Council. The Society Lab Project by Omri Revesz, Cecilia Danieli and Mariana Riobom won the 1st prize, along with two other teams ( Feb 2017).

The competition’s topic and the winning projects created the basis of the Finnish Pavilion theme at the 15th Venice Architecture Biennale. During, the 15th Venice Architecture Biennale, curated by Alejandro Aravena, the pavilion served as a platform to advance the conversation on how to house asylum seekers and enable them to integrate into society ( Feb 2017).


According to Helsinki Urban Facts and Hypo statistics, there are, currently, 300,000 vacant houses in Finland, which represents 8.2% of all built houses ( Jan 2016). 28,000 of these properties are in the capital, Helsinki. Society Lab is a digital platform designed to connect and merge request and offer: asylum seekers with vacant houses. Considering the number of asylum seekers to arrive in Finland (35,000) and the number of vacant houses in Finland (300,000), the aim is to create a system that connects the two, optimizing and managing existing resources and thus avoiding new constructions, ‘outsmarting’ newly built housing solutions.

As there will be no need for new constructions, consequent urban sprawl can be prevented. The aim is to make better use of existing resources and to densify given infrastructures through processing of data in real time. The funding that the state and eventual authorities — such as the European community — have allocated for constructions of new homes can be used to sponsor the first twelve months of rent in the Finnish vacant dwellings instead.

Besides the intelligent use of resources the focus lies on the social aspect: on one hand, refugees won’t be housed in new quarters segregated from the rest of the society and thereby stigmatized, on the other hand, local citizens have the possibility to interact and get to know the asylum seekers step by step. In this way, both sides benefit through newly established social contacts and steadily built up connections. The Society Lab system is thought to evolve according to a Micro and Macro time frame. During the Micro time frame — the first twelve months — locals enable the future independence of the asylum seeker by teaching them the language and engaging them in working activities and educational school programs. In the Macro time period, those who receive asylum will be ready to become an active and fully integrated part of the Finnish society. They will be able to pay for their accommodation, to work, communicate, and to develop relations with members of the community.

How can we achieve the goals aforementioned in the most efficient and fastest way? How can we reach the highest number of people integrated into one system? We can do so through utilizing social media; by creating an application that allows its users to collect and share information on a real-time basis. The majority of people use smartphones or other comparable devices to communicate. Asylum seekers are no exception to that. In fact, various mobile applications help asylum seekers on their travelling route to reach their final destination and are essential to become acquainted with the new surroundings.

Society Lab adds on here: Finnish people and asylum seekers create a real-time digital database in the form of community-edited maps that contain different parameters of information. The tool allows asylum seekers to be informed, to exchange knowledge, to search for and eventually to find accommodation even before arriving in Finland. The system is simple and intelligible. Local citizens and asylum seekers create a user profile to become part of the Society Lab community. Hence, users can upload data into the system, on a real-time basis: local citizens upload information about vacant houses available for rent; asylum seekers can express their needs, regarding housing and announce their skills to the community. All the data is immediately integrated into a city map interface, where intuitively one can understand what is available in the city.

The project is based on the assumption that integration in its complete form is the result of a shared effort. Therefore, the Society Lab database will include a broad range of further subcategories of seeking & offering: job, education, cultural exchange, etc. This dynamism will initiate the first encounter between local citizens and newcomers, which can be developed further into relationships in the physical space, creating cities that are dynamic, rich and plural.

For non-digital users, specific gathering points will be set up in public space to enhance sharing and implementing of the database with all possible suppliers and seekers. These spaces will function as info-point, recreational and meeting places. Further, they add the aspect of a marketplace like an encounter in real life.

P O T E N T I A L   O F   T H E   P R O J E C T

The potential of the project lies in the power of the community created in the digital sphere and its tremendous impact on the physical as well as social domain. In the same manner that the content generated with Waze helps to shape the traffic of cities, the output generated by the Society Lab database could help to diagnose, improve as well as forecast the physical sphere of housing. Firstly, the software application offers the opportunity to rent a house entirely through the platform. Successively, the growing database may enable new interactions and dynamics between people — both in the digital as well as physical realm — and, ultimately it will supply a clear overview of the communities’ needs and wants.

In the long term Adaptive Place Design can take place: through detecting the public sentiment of a place in an automatic and timely way, designers, architects, the municipality etc. get a database that provides them with detailed information about a certain area that can be adjusted precisely to current demands and developments. (You, 2016) Communities and local knowledge are an indispensable component to understanding the generated data, as they contribute to the identification of priorities within a certain country, city or block at a certain moment. The created data reaches far beyond empirical findings we are used to working with nowadays. The socio-anthropological aspect of the user group in combination with infrastructural hard facts opens up a new field of (co-)design and direct participation for users as well as for creators.

S O C I E T Y   L A B  |  T H E   E V E N T

During the 15th Biennale di Architettura di Venezia (2016) the Society Lab team held an interactive data collection installation in partnership with Arduino Casa Jasmina GIT – COMMIT. One objective was to establish a dialogue on ideas and critical issues regarding digital platforms and its contribution to the formation of new kinds of groups and sense of belonging. The intention of the event was to deepen knowledge regarding real-life communities, digital communities, and trust, concentrating on the gaps that would make a group of individuals to become a community.

Visitors and participants of the event were invited to reflect and answer up to six questions, whilste reviewing a responsive real-time output in the form of an uninterrupted flow chart, giving a full overview of the collected data and a personal printed response. The survey was used to investigate topics from trust (e.g. What makes you trust somebody to stay at your home through airbnb?), to self-reflexive issues (e.g. How often do you go out of your comfort zone to meet new people?) as well as perceptional aspects of cohabitation with someone new (e.g. Why would someone come to live in your home country?). The survey results show how the app could engage this certain group of people more in the process of connecting with each others.

The event served as further as a case study project for the so-called gathering points mentioned in the concept explanation beforehand. Through the public meetings, people can be addressed that might not use the app. So various opinions — not just positive ones — can be considered and integrated into the design. The aspect of a marketplace like encounter strengthens the plurality of insights that is fundamental for the advancement of the Society Lab project.

Generally speaking, with the knowledge gathered on one hand the application itself can be improved (digital improvement e.g. establish a trustworthy way of communicating through the app) on the other hand the output can be used in an architectural planning context (physical improvement e.g. meeting points can be designed respecting socio-cultural backgrounds and needs).

The authors believe, that the role of the architect within the digital context of data analysis and implementation will change the architectural field and its (self)perception elementarily. Data literacy — the ability to read, create and communicate data — might get the need-to-have ability for architects. If the field is not able to adapt and react to the newly emerging ways of integration and empowerment of the user, it may become obsolete. Currently, there are service providers across the board understand that they must place the user at the forefront of their practice. The public ultimately expects that in time their living spaces will also be more adaptable to changing living conditions informed by political and socio-economic shifts. Big Data tools offer architects the chance to forecast such expectations, so these values must be included in the methodologies.

The Case study gives an impression on how evidence-based design or rather, the prerequisite — the gathering of data and the interpretation of it — could be implemented. Evidently, the architect conducts the project as the head of organisation before the main design process begins. The fact that the end user participates in the design process does not mean that he/she designs the outcome. Instead, the user serves as an expert of the everyday — the architect becomes the mediator of the gathered needs and expectations and further, forms them into new spatial surroundings. The permanent exchange of knowledge from both side’s fuels the discovery of the optimal result. The benefit from this is that compared to traditional workflows, the output of the ‘design’ is precisely oriented towards the needs of the end user and can be consequently adjusted. Even cultural specifications can be better understood (i.e. floor plan layouts customised to specific cultural needs) as the information from and for the particular individual is available. The before mentioned is only feasible if the building process itself becomes more flexible as well (i.e. the adaption/production of space through rapid prototyping and automation).

In this sense, the authors believe that a question remains unanswered: What is the role of the architect, regarding the new wave of industrialisation and the exponentially growing speed of the digital world? Leaving the question unanswered is a way to let the future architectural generation explore their position in the field. Amid data collectors, data miners and decision makers, the architect can be placed as an intermediary that knows how to accommodate peoples needs based on an understanding of architectural potential in data.

The digitalisation will continue at an ever increasing speed. One can not stop it; one can just design it. The digital development of our world might not make our lives simpler, but there is a potential that it may improve the overall quality of our lives. Success or failure is not a technological question but a socio-political one. It depends on us.


The Society Lab Project won the From Border to Home competition of the Finnish Pavilion within the 15th Biennale di Architettura di Venezia (2016). The idea was developed by Omri Revesz, Cecilia Danieli and Mariana Riobom. It is used as the conceptual backdrop of the paper and shows its topicality as well as the potential of hands-on applicability. Hereby we wanna thank the authors that they provided us with all information needed.

list of references & readings

Isaacson, W. (ed.): 2014, The Innovators, How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, Simon & Schuster, New York City.

Littger, H.: 2017, Meine Daten gehören mir, enorm, 16/17(6), pp. 48–62.

Kampf, L and Hans L.: 2017, Bamf soll Identität von Asylbewerbern durch Blick ins Handy überprüfen, Süddeutsche Zeitung online. Available from: [Feb 2017].

Kanellos, M.: 2016,  IDC Outlines The Future of Smart Things, forbes magazine online. Available from: [Feb 2017].

Ratti, C. and Claudel M. (ed.): 2015, Open source Architecture, Thames & Hudson, London.

Rudolvsky, B.: 1965, Architecture Architecture Without Architects, A Short Introduction to Non-Pedigreed Architecture. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Xu, L. et al: 2014, Information Security in Big Data, IEEE Access, vol 2, pp. 1–28.

You, L. and Bige T.: 2016, Exploring public sentiments for livable places based on a crowd-calibrated sentiment analysis mechanism, IEEE/ACM International Conference on Advances in Social Networks Analysis and Mining (ASONAM), ACM, 2016, pp. 693–701.