Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Big Data And Historic Preservation


Hello Everyone:

Today we turn from the horrific events in Charlottesville, Virginia and President Donald Trump's rather pathetic efforts to condemn white supremacist groups to something somewhat related to the matter: "How Do You Measure the Value of a Historic Site?" reported by Linda Poon in CityLabHow do you gauge what a site means to people?  This is of particular importance as cities continue to grow and historic properties come under threat.  Ms. Poon looked at how Tiong Bahru, Singapore's oldest housing estate.  Tiong Bahru was first built in the 1930s and is still home to the city-state's first wet market (http://www.singapore-vacation-attractions.com date accessed Aug. 15, 2017) and the last standing World War II air raid shelter.  The good news is that, thus far, it is one of the few neighborhoods that have not been completely consumed by high rises.  The bad news is that encroaching gentrification-cafes and trendy boutiques-has made it its presence felt.

Ms. Poon reports, "Tiong Bahru is an example of the the tension between historic preservation and economic development on the small island of 5 million people." Singapore is the epitome of modernity with its gleaming skyscrapers, multi-colored lights flickering in the night sky, and the kind of eye popping architecture that other cities fantasize.  (http://www.reuters.com; date accessed Aug. 15, 2017). The landscape is in a state of constant change in order to accommodate new demands, barely leaving room for older buildings.

Even historic cemeteries are not sparred.  Mimi Kirk reported in CityLab that historic cemeteries are being dug up to make room for new constructions (http://www.citylab.com; Apr. 24, 2017; date accessed Aug. 15, 2017).  National libraries and theaters are giving way to highway projects and new apartments-"all in the name of progress."  Nanyang Technical University complexity scientist Siew Ann Cheong told Ms. Poon,

We can still remember the thing we did as kids, but there's no physical substance that we can anchor those member to

Singapore's government has never been a fan of historic preservation and whatever efforts to conserve physical objects of its past have become mired in politics.  Ms. Kirk reported when Singapore's former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew (1959-90), not a preservation fan himself, passed away in in 2015, "...his will called for the demolition of the colonial-style bungalow he had lived in since 1945." (Ibid)  LKY told a gathering of journalists in 2011

If our children are unable to demolish the house as a result of any changes in the law, rules or regulations binding them, it is my wish that the house never be opened to other except my children, their and descendants...(http://www.straitstimes.com; Apr. 13, 2015; date accessed Aug. 15, 2017)

Currently, the house is at the center of a bitter and politically fueled family feud.

Lost among the debates is a more constructive constructive conversation over the actual cultural value of a place and its preservation worthiness to the Singaporeans.  Mr. Cheong and his colleague, historian Andrea Nanetti, believe they have found a science-based strategy to assessing historic-cultural value.  Linda Poon reports, "Their method is rooted in complex theory, the study of system comprising interacting parts and whose behavior is hard to predict and, therefore control."  Their approach is called SHIFT-Sustainable Heritage Impact Factor Theory-"and they believe it can give cultural value its due in often-messy debates over preservation and redevelopment."

As we have seen in the ongoing debates over Confederate monuments, cultural value is a subjective matter, measure by human experiences.  Messrs. Cheong and Nanetti believe "...politicians and urban planners often focus too much on physical space."  However, heritage conservation should be considered a complex system composed of old and residents-"interacting with each other, the landscape, and the surrounding landmarks."  In a paper, Sustainable Heritage Impact Theory (SHIFT): A complexity framework for heritage assessment and planning (http://www dr.ntu.edu.org; 2016; date accessed Aug. 15, 2017)  they describe their theory, heritage is also a constantly evolving network:

This complex network evolves with time, as old agents are removed and new agents are added.  Existing links between agents can also be removed, and new links added.  As these social changes are happening, we can also have the removal of old landmarks and the addition of new landmarks.

The central thesis is "urban planners and leaders need to evaluate the tangible aspects (the physical buildings or sites), the intangible elements (human-to-human interaction), and the natural surroundings."  Specifically, it is these patterns of interaction and how they spread across the city, changing from one generation to the next.

How do you gauge the strength of these interactions over time and forecast how certain development projects might impact them?  First step is to study the abundant and available data.  Mr. Cheong told Linda Poon,

What we are trying to measure here is the depth of connection between the people and the [customs] and places...If we value this particular building, how much do we value it?  The natural way of measuring that would be to see whether people write or paint about this.

Or post and tweet about it (you know who you are).

The incessant posting and tweeting is useful in the initial analysis of how frequently a site is featured in the social media.  The initial analysis also looks how often a site is featured in traditional media as well. It is not just about how many likes, it is also about analyzing the quality of each platform.  "A painting take more time to make than an Instagram photo, so the two would rank differently in the evaluation.

Siew Ann Cheong acknowledges the limitations of this method.  "A cemetery may not exactly be an inspirational backdrop for art despite its cultural significance by other measures, and it would have the abundance of data for,...a national monument."  The plethora of tourist photographs of a historic-cultural site may not accurately reflect what the host community wants.

Mr. Cheong admits he does not have a method for correcting the limitations.  Additionally, there is a lot of revealing data that has not been completely collected, such as statistics about demographics cross sections or local tourism.  Optimistically, the researchers say "it's not too late to start now."

This is only a small part of a bigger conversation that needs to happen before the developers plunge ahead with a project.  Ms. Poon writes, "At the very least, thinking of heritage and cultural significance in this framework brings out the questions that need to be asked:  What stories need to be told to highlight a historic site's significance, and how they weigh against the need to build new towers?"  Rather than leveling an entire town for a new development, are they specific areas that should be preserved?  Further, if a proposed development moves forward, how can it be put up in a manner that does not disrupt the historic fabric of a neighborhood?

This strategy also lays the foundation for a less politicized historic preservation process and more of an issue for big data.  Andrea Nanetti told Ms. Poon,

Our point is: how can this evaluation become machine readable, and thus potentially empowered by artificial intelligence and other computer tools?...The most important thing is to put on the table data and information in a way that decision makers can foresee part of the consequences in taking one decision or another.

Siew Ann Cheong and Andrea Nanetti hope to test their method in Singapore.  However, because of the politically sensitive nature of the city-state's heritage conservation policy, they will conduct their test in Oman with hopefully good results.  

Could this be be applied to American historic preservation policy?  Possibly.  It certainly would engender slightly less heated debates over what is preservation worthy.  Thinking about the events in Charlottesville, Virginia and the ongoing calls to remove Confederate monuments.  Yours truly wonders how this big data approach to heritage conservation would work and what the response would be.


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