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Kaz Sakamoto is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation and has been teaching at Columbia University since 2014. He is also currently a senior data scientist at Lander Analytics.
Kaz has previously worked at Goldman Sachs, and the New York City Economic Development Corporation, where he convinced HUD to change their methodology for CDBG funding post SuperStorm Sandy, consulted on Universal Pre-K roll out and produced many maps for such projects as the East River Ferry Expansion, and Public Wifi in NYC.
Sakamoto earned a B.A. in biology from the University of Rochester, with a certificate in Ethnomusicology at the Eastman School of Music, and received a M.S. in Urban Planning from Columbia University.
His research interests concern the use of technology augmenting the planning process. He’s led two summer workshops in Honolulu Hawaii studying transit oriented development, and how technology can better inform the future of mobility.
In this week’s episode of the podcast, Kaz and I talk about what it means to be an urban planner, his approaches to teaching mapping tools and techniques, and the tradeoffs between closed- and open-source mapping software tools.
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Welcome back to the PolicyViz podcast. I am your host, Jon Schwabish. Well, spring is just about here. So it’s time to open those windows and dust out the house and get ready for some nice weather. I hope you are doing well. And I hope you have been able to check out my new book Better Data Visualizations. I’ve received a lot of great feedback about the book. And I’m really excited to see people using it in their work. If you are located outside of the United States, particularly in Europe, you should be able to get your hands on the book any day now. There were some delays in shipping and postage in the UK, especially because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But I am told by my publisher that those are starting to resolve themselves, and you should be able to get your hands on it. So I hope you’ll pick it up. I hope you’ll share what you’ve learned from it. I hope you’ll maybe take a picture and share it on Twitter. I’ve been really enjoying collecting pictures of the book from people’s homes all over the world. And I hope you’re enjoying listening to the podcast. We’ve had a lot of great episodes over the last few weeks, and we are going to continue and once again, I’m aiming towards the end of June to wrap up this season of the show. And in that very last episode of this season will be the 200th episode of the podcast. So I am looking forward to that very special episode.
But on today’s episode of the podcast, I am happy to have Kaz Sakamoto chat with me. Kaz is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Columbia University, where he teaches GIS and mapping in the Urban Planning Department. So I’m not an urban planner. I don’t even know if I’ve ever met an urban planner before. So it was really exciting to chat with Kaz about what those students expect, how he does his work, what urban planners expect, and what they need in doing their day to day work, especially as it relates to data visualization, and creating maps. So I hope you’ll enjoy this week’s episode of the show. And here’s my interview with Kaz.
Jon Schwabish: Hey, Kaz. How are you doing? Welcome to the show.
Kaz Sakamoto: I’m great. Thanks for having me, Jon.
JS: Really great to chat with you in these weird times, I guess. I’m excited to chat with you about your work and your teaching, and the different map tools that you use. We’ve got a lot to get you. And as you probably know, it’s one of those mapping is like one of those big question marks, I think for lots of people, because you can kind of draw a bar chart or scatterplot with pen and paper. But like everybody has challenges making maps, and there’s always these questions about like, what’s the best tool to make maps. So I’m excited to get your take on that, and what you use, and what you use for teaching. So maybe you could just start by introducing yourself, talk a little bit about your background, and then we can — we can talk about some of the work that you’ve been doing.
KS: Yeah, I’d love to do that. And like we say, spatial is special. So–
JS: Do you have a T-shirt? Do you have a T-shirt that says that?
KS: I think there should be some words around spatial.
JS: Definitely, definitely should be.
KS: And so, we’ll be happy to talk about that. But a little bit about myself. I’m an Adjunct Professor of Urban Planning at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia. And I also am a senior data scientist at Lander Analytics. And my interests kind of lie in the intersection of planning and where emerging technologies kind of augment the way we collect and analyze data about our cities. And as an educator, I teach the application of these digital tools, with coding. And I try to inject more critical theories of Technology and Society, while the students also learn these hard skills that will make them hopefully, since it’s a professional program marketable for future jobs.
JS: Right. So I want to talk about how you have that discussion about these critical theories. But for folks who don’t know, can you talk a little bit about what the field of urban planning is? And what makes up both? Well, I guess, the, the research side of things and the professional work of being an urban planner.
KS: Sure. So urban planning is definitely a hot field. And I think it’s because of this rapid urbanization that we’ve been seeing, and more and more people are moving into urban centers. And I think that’s going to be continuing as the century progresses. And I think it’s important because we need more professionals who’s going to make sure that cities of the future are going to have the maximum livability standards and you know, that could be about equity. It has to be economically and ecologically sustainable. But urban planning is a really, really wide field and it’s very interdisciplinary. And so, typically, we’re talking about cities and regions. And when you look for urban planning programs, sometimes they’ll be called regional planning, city planning, urban planning. But those are all fairly synonymous. And in terms of urban planning, it touches — cities are probably one of the most complex things that humans create. And it’s comprised of the infrastructures of housing, transportation, about refuse utilities, and communications. So not one person can plan all of these things, but it is oftentimes a group activity. And I like to think that urban planners are really these middlemen that try to connect all of these parts of the city so that they can hopefully plan for the future as well as what needs to happen today and tomorrow.
JS: Your concept or idea that, you know, urbanization is going to continue to grow over the next decades and years, do you think the pandemic will accelerate that growth or not? I’m curious, just, just thinking about what people are sort of doing, what people have done over the last 12 months in terms of their living situations, do you think people are more likely to move into cities once the pandemic sort of comes to an end, or the opposite trend is going to start to unfold?
KS: Yeah. So there might be some deceleration of this trend that we’ve been seeing. But people also I think, New York City after 9/11 is a great example. People thought that New York City was over. No one’s going to want to move back. And we saw this huge renaissance of people moving back in and especially the younger generation wanting a more urban lifestyle. And we’ve seen millennials don’t want cars. They’re not so much interested in the ownerships and a city will always be more efficient than living in the suburbs. And I think that’s what draws a lot of people in, as well as the economic activities that also happen.
JS: Right. It’ll also be interesting to see, just thinking about some of the executive orders and emphasis in the new Biden administration on climate change, how that will impact cities, and people’s desire to live in cities, because as you said, there are efficiencies to living in cities. And how does the emphasis on solar power, wind power or, you know, renewable technologies, how does that impact urban areas differently than rural areas?
KS: Mm-mhm. I guess, in terms of urban planning is all about land use and land management as well.
KS: I am from Hawaii, which is very constricted in terms of land. And so I think a lot of people have this idea about having some land, but if you want to keep the country country, or enjoy your national parks and your rural areas, density is actually the best way to protect that. And so the suburban development that we’ve seen in the like the 50s and the 60s is really not sustainable, because it is this urban sprawl that has, you know, probably had a huge ecological impact across the world.
KS: In terms of energy, you know, having a building like an apartment building, rather than a single family house is also more energy efficient.
JS: Sure, right.
KS: Because we’re sharing the lot of the heat and the cooling. So those will also benefit more people rather than having your own single family home.
JS: Right. And your single car, as opposed to a bus or subway train, right. Yeah. Okay. So let’s talk about your teaching. So you teach, is it a GIS class specifically? Or is it — is it more general and sort of applied GIS?
KS: Yes. So I teach a few classes, and one of them is GIS. And GIS is also a required course. So everyone has to take it when they take the urban planning master’s program at Columbia. And most schools do require it, but some don’t. So if you’re looking into a program, you should look at what the required courses will be.
JS: Right. So tell me a little bit about these students because I would suspect it’s important for them to have some background in, you know, data and specifically when, you know, making maps, they need to know about latitude, longitude, at the very least, and, and statistics. So what is the kind of average student and what are they coming into your class with in terms of their background and their expertise?
KS: Sure. So the average student, if I could make a profile, is probably one or two years out of undergrad. So they may have a little bit of experience. And they come from a lot of different backgrounds. The main ones are, there’s very few urban planning bachelor’s programs. So that one is not as common, but there are people who do continue for a Master’s. But usually, you’ll see urban studies programs in the United States, or architecture background. So they already have an idea about urbanism through their design practice.
KS: But they could be like, economics majors, political science, environmental studies. So it’s really runs the gamut in terms of their backgrounds.
JS: It’s pretty wide.
KS: Yeah, it’s very wide. So it’s, you know, because there’s no real urban planning bachelor’s program, everyone comes from a different background, but they’re interested in learning about urban systems, and whether from kind of a design perspective, because we’re talking about the built environment. And we know that good design in urban spaces can lead to better outcomes in terms of health, efficiency, mobility, all of those things, as well as the management of the policies that affect change in the urban landscape, whether it’s through land use and zoning.
JS: Right. So you’ve got this totally wide variation and student backgrounds coming from every conceivable sector coming into your class to learn in this case about, about mapping. So can you give us a rundown of your basic philosophy to teaching a GIS class to like a group that can come from almost anywhere have any background?
KS: Yes. So we usually start off with just a baseline of that most people probably haven’t touched GIS or made a map in this program before. And it’s usually true. Maybe they have, like, in their internship, they told them to just like open it and make a map, and they had to struggle through it. But we really kind of break it down so that if you’re starting from scratch, which most people are, we have a very gentle way of teaching the theory of what a GIS framework is, because I think people also think about GIS and don’t really know what it stands for because it is a framework. And it’s not a — it’s not just a software. And it’s also not just a data visualization tool.
JS: That’s really interesting. I hadn’t really, I don’t think I really thought about it as being a framework rather than a tool. I think, for me at least it’s almost synonymous. But that’s a really interesting way to think about it. So how do you sort of set up that framework before you start getting people into actually making things and presumably, making them better than maybe they’ve done in the past which is probably using something like, I don’t know, like a Google Sheets or something like that? But like, how do you set them up in this foundation or theory before you start to get to the practical part of making things?
KS: So it’s through, we break it down into a lecture where it’s much more theoretical. So it does include the concepts from cartography and, you know, about geodesy, and just like what is the shape of the earth? And how do we model it? And then how does that get translated into data? But also through the readings and thinking about GIS as a framework, right, because it’s comprised of the people and the software and the data and its own methods.
KS: So that’s all separate. And because it’s a framework, it could be used as like a political tool. Right? So it’s a technology. So it’s not value neutral as, as like a hammer or something like that, like someone created it and some people benefit from it. And how does it can it be used for a participatory like GIS, or community based GIS that’s not held in governments and academia. So breaking down, where we as people learning GIS, like Colombia is a very privileged place. And how can we think about it being more of a radical tool rather than, you know, saying, like, who has ownership of land or demarcating the line is really significant.
JS: Right. That’s really interesting. So it’s more — it sounds like the beginning of the class of the semester or whatever is more about the, the framing, the philosophy and more of a political economy model, as opposed to just jumping in and let’s, you know, let’s learn how to create good things. It’s more about grounding the theory in the privilege and how these maps can impact people in place.
KS: Yes, and I think that’s so important, because many tools, you can just say like here is how to overlay a polygon and create a choropleth map and you don’t ever think about, I think one of your previous guests was talking about how even data is a social construct. So when we’re talking about maps, maps have so much power over people and when you see a map you believe that, and I think that’s already ingrained into our culture. And we take that as truth, which is also something that we have to think through, you know, it’s a very privileged thing to make a map. And it has been through history.
JS: Right. So as the professor of the class, do you find that the students are there that they are receptive to that theoretical grounding, or they just want to get into the software and start making stuff? Like, I feel like this is like a, like a database teaching challenge, right? It’s everybody wants to start making stuff. But there’s, there’s concepts and philosophies and principles before you start to get in and making things.
KS: Yes, and I think that’s the benefit of being in a graduate program, especially our program is very heavily focused on social justice and equity. And so most students come in knowing that this program is going to be focused on these types of issues. And so every class will probably touch on some kind of issues. And in this class, you know, I think working with data, you just have to be so careful, because you can create a map and, you know, in terms of the visuals, you can already be misleading, right, by using colors, or even how you break up the bins is going to make a very different story. But you know, just understanding where the data comes from, and what this program is doing, I think is really important.
JS: Yeah. No, I totally, I totally agree. It’s a really interesting way to frame it. Okay. So now you’ve gotten them set up. They at least have this background philosophy and framework in their minds. So now they start to get their hands dirty. So let’s talk about the software tools. So what do you use? What do you like, both in terms of your teaching, but also in like, as you’re like, personally, when you’re making things? You know, using commercial tools, open source tools, you know, what are the pros and cons of these different tools?
KS: Yeah. So in our class, right now, we’re teaching ArcMap, which is the Esri product, and that is a private company. And so it’s not open source, but they are very, very powerful, because they’ve been around for so long. And so many of the tools that people use are already part of ArcMap. And so I would say that is the industry standard. And like governments, like huge corporations, they all use Esri, because it’s really reliable. And they — it’s very robust in terms of all the tools that they have.
KS: So, you know, as someone who’s training professional, urban planners, Esri is probably the best product to do so. And in my practice, I luckily have access to Esri through Columbia, but it’s very expensive. So I wouldn’t be able to pay for myself and understanding that I needed to think about, okay, if I wanted to keep doing GIS, how could I do that in an open source matter. So in this class, we’re also trying to create more tutorials around QGIS, which is very similar to what ArcMap looks like, in terms of the graphic user interface. And so there’s this graphic user interface that you can click and do a lot of work with. But R and Python, both have functionalities to work with spatial features. But I primarily use R since I think there’s more robust mapping capabilities with R.
JS: So as you think about these the different tradeoffs between the private side tools like Esri, and the open source community based tools like QGIS, like R, like Python, do you bring that back to the philosophy at the beginning of the class? Because it was an interesting point that you made, that people who are creating maps have a responsibility, and there’s, there’s a privilege there? And like you said, Esri is a very expensive tool. So that’s sort of, you know, exacerbates those gaps. So do you have those conversations in the class? Or is it like, we’ve set up the philosophy of what it means to do this work? And now we’re going to — this is a tool we’re going to use, we’re just going to get into it?
KS: Yeah, definitely. I tell them, you know, like, straight up that Esri is very expensive, and just making maps in general is a very powerful thing that not a lot of people, you know, get to do. And so when your projects and your outputs are dependent on this expensive software, that means that not everyone gets to use it. So, you know, it’s kind of rarefied in the like seats of governments or in academia usually, or big corporations that can afford to make maps. And I think you, you know, there’s so many tools out there that they made. And that’s what makes it very powerful, and why they can charge so much money. And the early kind of online mapping stuff, I would not even say that it was GIS because it was still a data visualization portal. And I would say it wasn’t giving people the full control of manipulating and analyzing and querying spatial data. It was really just, you know, if you have a shapefile, or GeoJSON file, you can just put it on a map and then put it on like a tile map and interact with it. So I didn’t think that was true GIS.
JS: So for the final product in this particular field of urban planning, are stakeholders, policymakers, other planners, are they looking for a final product to be a static map? Or is it some sort of web based interactive map where they can, you know, toggle on zoom and select and all that sort of thing? And then, and then so I’m leaning towards this question of, you know, which tools are better for which of those different use cases?
KS: Yes. So I would say that communication and presentations are also super important in urban planning, like, you know, any other field. But community buy in and the trust in people is I think paramount in terms of getting things done. And urban planners have a lot to contend with, because you have to oftentimes work with real estate developers, politicians, and then the community members. And so presenting your ideas in a honest, but authoritative way, I think is you’ve got to find that balance.
KS: And some of these tools really do help people envision what the future is going to be. And so I think, you know, planners will always have to be open to what’s the best way to present that data is going to be. And, you know, I think this is where in our GIS classes, it’s very focused on these mapping methods. In planning, you’re going to have to maybe give a big presentation about like a 30-year master plan. But in this GIS class, we really focus on them developing their methods. And I think it could also be utilized for them to really describe and understand spatial methods by using visual diagrams as well. And I think one example is a student this past semester in the fall did a great diagram of a method called the two step floating catchment area.
KS: And because the work that we do is inherently spatial, I think making visual diagrams of the methodologies help the student understand what is happening. And it’s also a great communication tool in terms of letting someone know, like, this is how this analysis was done. And so I think it’s a great double benefit tool.
JS: When they’re diagramming, are they in the computer? Or are they are they sketching? Like, is it, is it analog? Or is it more of a digital process?
KS: I would say that first, it probably happens easiest on pen and paper. But you can’t really present that. So eventually, they’ll probably go into some like design software, whether it’s just like on Google Slides, and they make like the diagram there, maybe like Adobe Illustrator.
JS: Right. Yeah, really interesting. So to wrap us up, can you talk about at the end of this course, where are the students situated in terms of their, not necessarily in terms of the degree process, but where are they in terms of their, their skill set? And where are they sort of positioned within that process?
KS: Yes. So we have a final project. So everyone will do either through a group or individually a research project that involves a spatial method. So that’s the caveat that it has to be a spatial method using GIS because there’s lots of research that doesn’t include spatial data. And that’s the benefit of having a GIS, right. If you want to include you know, like, what Wi-Fi kiosks interests like these neighborhoods. Those are will have to be done through a GIS because those are spatial questions. And we really want to push students to start thinking spatially about their research questions. Because kind of like time series, we live in a spatial temporal world, and traditional statistics, just stop at independent features, right, which is totally violated when we do GIS because we know that the first law of geography is that nearer things are more related than the further things, which is not independent.
JS: Right. Okay.
KS: And so it’s fine, right. Things that happened a minute ago are probably more similar than something that happened a year ago. And so trying to kind of think more about how can space be a feature in your model of the world is really what we want the students to get, and also accomplish that through a GIS program, whether it’s Esri or R, it doesn’t matter, because it’s the framework, right? You can do it in any program.
JS: It doesn’t really matter, right.
KS: It’s really just the spatial thinking and reasoning.
JS: Yeah. It’s tool agnostic, but the underlying theory and philosophy and framework, I sort of like keep listening those three terms, but I guess in this case, they’re kind of anonymous. But yeah, so having that underlying philosophy, it doesn’t really matter what tool you end up using, because that philosophy is going to permeate all that work regardless.
JS: Yeah. Really interesting. Well, now I’m a little, I’m a little jealous. I never took an urban planning class back in the day. But it sounds really great. Thanks for coming on the on the show and chatting about this. I think there’s a lot of tools here that folks can explore. And of course, having this idea that GIS is not the tool, it’s the framework. And I think that’s really helpful for folks. So, Kaz, thanks so much for coming on the show.
KS: Yeah. It’s been a pleasure. Thanks, Jon.
JS: And thanks, everyone, for tuning into this week’s episode of the podcast. I hope you enjoyed that interview with cast. I hope you’ll check out my new book Better Data Visualizations, and be sure to check out everything going on the PolicyViz website and blog. So until next time, this has been the PolicyViz podcast. Thanks so much for listening.
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