Building knowledge infrastructure at the engaged urban research university

A thought-piece for the Great Cities Urban Data Visualization Retreat, 12/10/99, by

Albert Schorsch, III,
Associate/Acting Dean, UIC-CUPPA


Copyright 1999, 2010, Albert J. Schorsch, III

[This is a working document in progress. Your comments are welcome.]

Two of the policy buzzword "kennings" of the information age are "information infrastructure" and "knowledge network." This essay examines some necessary steps to build networks of knowledge about cities and regions amidst the robust and growing information infrastructure provided by large urban research universities, and how this growing knowledge can better serve the public.

When we consider knowledge infrastructure as opposed to information infrastructure, we examine not only the acquisition and manufacture of new information tools, but also the growth and deepening of human relationships within which these tools are used. This growth and deepening can lead to better shared understanding of the information and data available throughout information networks, and to increased public participation based upon increased public knowledge.

Putting flesh and bones on what was just dryly stated, at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), growing awareness of a number of shared ideals have driven our efforts almost from the beginning: (a) that public information should be made extensively available to the public, (b) that technology should be shaped to reduce information boundaries among persons and public institutions, (c) that interdisciplinary work among scholars was absolutely necessary to make effective contributions in complex urban and regional environments, and (d) that collaborations among university and community should break down barriers between public and expert culture and produce true partnerships, further informing research. These values are shared across UIC through our urban land grant Great Cities Initiative, integrated into our research agendas, and make possible our many interdisciplinary efforts. They also inform our approach, which situates research tasks within wider social and inter-cultural settings with multiple points of contact and multiple flows of information. We recognize that the community and university are dual producers of knowledge, and the data leading to it. The old "urban mission" of UIC has thus been anticipating and working toward what NSF has called "knowledge networks" for quite some time. Implied in these ideals is something of a Socratic optimism, that the better we know ourselves and our world, the better we may do as fellow citizens.

Given the task of deepening our capacity for mutual knowledge among our municipalities and regions, and given our desire to gain mutual knowledge, we must admit the daunting nature of the challenges which face us.

What we don't know about cities and regions still overshadows what we do. Because of the growing complexity of regional environments, economies, and governments, this will remain true for the foreseeable future. The day of the single talking-head media "urban expert," is over. The complexity of urban and regional analysis is such that entire teams of researchers and citizens are necessary to address the larger research questions pertaining to public policy. After more than a half-century of urban and regional research, many important public policy decisions are still made on a "seat of the pants" basis, with a generational time lag in error correction, or, for want of information or knowledge, simple superstitious policy reversal on a cyclical "seat of the pants" basis.

Public data is often unavailable, incompatible, and disappearing. The cumulative record of public policy action within this region lies in thousands of public and semi-public databases, within incompatible systems, each in various stages of mixed maintenance, decay, or expiration.

Information, knowledge, and analysis still remain buried, or unconnected. Universities and independent urban scholars produce vast amounts of knowledge that remains invisible to the public. Faculty studies, student theses and projects with their related data, especially those that pertain to neighborhoods or regions, are often stored in faculty or departmental offices, and eventually disappear.

Software systems are not integrated. The World Wide Web as a medium has required us to integrate or bridge across software packages to make public data available. Database, Geographic Information Systems, three-dimensional software, and Internet display tools must be merged into one integrated medium for better public access and participation. Some of this task is beyond the capacity of a university, and can only be accomplished by industry. But the universities can pioneer key approaches to the problem.

Geography challenges us as the urban and regional catalog. UIC has taken a lead, through the cooperative work of the UIC Great Cities Urban Data Visualization Program and UIC City Design Center and its Chicago Imagebase project ( in developing the technologies necessary for multi-layered browsing of maps, images, and data catalogued by underlying GIS, with the future goal in mind of "fly-through" visualization of urban space, from which maps, images, historical documents, and data applets can be called, as Web browsing moves more to a television-like medium. Faculty from UIC have joined in discussion with USC's ISLA project for Los Angeles (, and are discussing the development of research agendas to hurdle various obstacles. Among these obstacles are visualization tools for extremely large datasets, the challenges of distributed computing, and the difficulties of simultaneous database management of text, data, sound, and images within a layered geographic scheme. Research on these questions builds the capacity of "libraries of the future."

Existing computing power is not utilized. Large public databases can now be crunched with today's increased computing power, but much must be done in terms of obtaining, correcting, formatting, combining, documenting, and preserving this data. We have not linked large public databases with the computing power necessary to analyze changes in public life due to changes in public policy, nor have we installed available software for urban and regional analysis on our most powerful computers.

Human and computer networks decay unless they are maintained, and sustained. In the UIC Neighborhoods and NonProfits Network project (UIC-NNNet) ( funded by US Department of Commerce, National Telecommunications and Information Administration, Telecommunication and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program (NTIA-TIIAP) from 1994-1996, UIC connected fifty community institutions primarily in the Chicago neighborhoods of Pilsen (predominantly Hispanic American) and the Near West Side (predominantly African American) to dial-in Internet accounts at UIC, trained members of these organizations in e-mail and web skills, and programmed and published the database of the Donors Forum of Chicago on the web. The near five-year experience of the UIC-NNNet has led to insights into the effects of university-community cooperation, and a better understanding of the organization, technologies, and tools required by knowledge networks. Some of these later were summarized in the UIC-NNNet "Lessons Learned" and anthropologist's qualitative report. Among the principal discoveries were the roles that both social network decay and equipment decay play in the sustainability of "community computing" efforts, and how personal acquaintance and site visits build such a successful effort. UIC has run the course from technical assistance, to partnership, and in recent years to university-community knowledge network building, and this progression has only reaffirmed the need for continual maintenance and commitment to the human networks behind the computer networks.

University-Community cooperation must be intentional, not accidental. The advanced research capacities of a major university must continually be put into the hands of community institutions to produce data which can inform these institutions and others about changes in their interactions and quality of life due to their own activities. This accumulated data and imagery must not only be preserved and catalogued, but continually made more visible and accessible for shared discussion and analysis. We need to construct not only a "university that sees and listens" but "university that does not forget," and, after much interdisciplinary effort, a "university that is transparent."

Long learning curves challenge us in key software and data management applications. The mastery of tools which unlock patterns in data and images, such as GIS, require a year or two of active practice prior to proficiency. So too for the learning of skills necessary to maintain the underlying computer networks, and to visualize data from these systems.

The lack of personnel in new, conjoint disciplines. Economic geography emerges as a key discipline from within this medium, serving other disciplines and their analysis. Planner-programmers, for that matter, scientist-programmers in most research disciplines, become necessary for progress across the boundaries of software packages and analysis.

The human dimension can get lost in the Internet medium. At the heart of both public and university life are conversation and narrative. Information dispersed through computers without a "human face," without human comment, or without a human being at "the other end of the line," removes the communicative and participative dimension from the medium. The medium must continually be constructed to bring persons in contact with each, and to make conversation possible, even likely.

Possible Research Agenda:

It is possible, given the challenges above, to assemble a research agenda involving many university disciplines. This list, because of time constraints, is very basic, and we'll fill it out more during the GCUDV retreat on 12/10/99.

A. The construction, visualization, and preservation of longitudinal regional databases (possible funder, NSF "Enhancing Infrastructure for the Social and Behavioral Sciences" and "Extremely Large Dataset Visualization" programs.).

The county assessor databases for this region, going back almost thirty years, with years soon to be lost, are the bedrock of urban and regional analysis in many disciplines. CUPPA and UIC Library have discussed a joint role here, and have begun to approach the differing assessors. If these databases can be combined and preserved, most disciplines concerned with public policy in this region can tap into this data and its related imagery.

B. The strategic management of public databases (possible funder, NSF "Digital Government" program). This might involve a collaboration among Public Administration, IDS, and Engineering programs.

C. Regional data access/preservation projects of encyclopedic scope. Among these are the Chicago Imagebase (mentioned above, various funders), the Chicago Community Fact Book (on which CUPPA-GCUDV, CDC-Imagebase, and UIC Sociology have cooperated with GCUDV funds), and the unfunded project, the Chicago Encyclopedia of Regional Policy and Development.

D. Regional data correction/update projects. Ongoing work of various geographic agencies, various state and federal funders.

F. New forms of public participation, comment. On 12/10/99 at the GCUDV retreat, we'll demonstrate the new GCUDV technology being developed to allow the public to comment on public issues on a web-based map, with the map updating based upon their comments (NSF ITS funding is being sought). Such a technology will have great impact on public commentary on public action in the years to come.


Research and technical assistance projects must cooperate, but maintain separate spaces and trajectories. When a university invents a useful tool, it is important that research on this tool progress toward its effective testing and completion. There is great pressure to put a useful tool to work in public technical assistance projects immediately, and a danger of overwhelming the research team with calls, personal appearances, applied projects, etc., prior to the completion of the work.

Educational Agenda:

At the GCUDV retreat, we'll discuss the training and education support that GCUDV has begun to provide to meet the "learning curve" problems cited above.

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