Earthtime image courtesy of CREATE Lab.

EarthTime, an open-source mapmaking tool from the minds at Carnegie Mellon, has been used to track global warming, violence in the Sahara Desert and the world refugee crisis.

Their next project? Affordable housing in Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh City Council has approved a $20,000 contract for CMU’s Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment Lab (CREATE Lab) to use their mapmaking tool to build an interactive, online map displaying long-term housing trends across the city.

The researchers will work closely with the city’s Commission on Human Relations on the project, which is scheduled to go live sometime next year.

Speaking with NEXTpittsburgh, CREATE Lab project specialist Anne Wright explains that the partnership with the city and county will provide her and her team with access to vast troves of data, including information on fair housing enforcement actions, public safety records and voter registration numbers.

With all those statistics and many more plotted on a map of Pittsburgh, “you can see the impacts of displacement in multiple dimensions,” says Wright. “Over time, we can understand how we’re doing in terms of making affordable, safe, secure housing for everybody.”

EarthTime was developed in 2015 and quickly became a staple of presentations during the World Economic Forum in Davos. On Earth Day 2018, CREATE Lab launched an online, open-source version of the software.

The software combines cutting-edge analytics with visualization strategies and software similar to those found in video games, allowing massive data sets to be plotted on satellite imagery in a clear and accessible way.

“We, as a society face, hard problems of inequity,” says Illah R. Nourbakhsh, a professor of robotics at CMU and director of the CREATE Lab. “We believe an important way forward is to shine sunlight on the structural barriers to equity that we face in our city, and visualizations can help us do this in a way that is engaging and inclusive of all in our city.”

This is just the beginning of an important discussion in Pittsburgh, Nourbakhsh says. In order to really improve housing equity, she tells us, “we need to act together, with common ground, for the good of all.”

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.