Collaborating with an architectural studio hosted by Universidad San Francisco de Quito, the UChicago researchers hope their new map will serve as a baseline for tracking how neighborhoods develop over time. Because construction in the Galápagos is often the result of individuals augmenting their own homes to cater to tourists, cities are growing with minimal organized engineering and urban planning.
“People talk about sustainability in terms of climate change, urbanization or human development,” said Prof. Luís Bettencourt, the Pritzker Director of the Mansueto Institute and a leading researcher in urban science and complex systems. “But these things need to happen together, and be understood in a way that creates outcomes which are good for both people and the environment.”
“We all want to live better in the future, which means there’s going to be continued economic growth,” he added. “Does that mean that we need to consume more in ways that are detrimental to ecosystems? That’s the dilemma.”
Bettencourt knows the allure of the Galápagos well. Trained as a theoretical physicist, he remembers reading Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle for the first time as a teenager. When Bettencourt first glimpsed several years ago the same bay that Darwin visited, he couldn’t help but tear up.
Bettencourt joined UChicago in February 2017 as the inaugural director of the Mansueto Institute. The following spring, the organization selected a pair of scholars to accompany him to the Galápagos for four weeks: Daniel Zünd—a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute—and Andrew Mao, who was then studying computational analysis at the Harris School of Public Policy.
Universidad San Francisco de Quito and the Melbourne School of Design had already laid a foundation of research with the architectural studio started in 2015, combining architecture with data modeling systems to examine the built environment. What UChicago provided was technical expertise in computing and mapping, as well as a perspective on social sciences and policy research.
Mao, AB’17, became the project’s cyclist—a role that came with its own unique hazards. While collecting street-view images with the GoPro-outfitted helmet, he found that certain blocks were patrolled by several dogs. They didn’t take well to interlopers. On one journey, a dog broke its leash, forcing Mao to use his bicycle as a shield.
“You have to have a little bit of grit,” said Mao, now a product analyst at PayPal.
The Mansueto Institute researchers also encountered other obstacles. Internet service on the islands was often slow, forcing them to wait until residents and tourists had gone to sleep to upload photos and videos. Their drone also crashed toward the end of the trip after being carried off course by high winds.
“The lucky thing is, that was really the last flight,” Zünd said.
Added Bettencourt: “There are fundamental constraints there, which allow you to see that technology is not a magic bullet. It enables you to do certain things, but you have to use it in the right ways.”
The UChicago scholars stored the street-view images on Mapillary, a crowd-sourced service for sharing geotagged photos. That software also identifies physical elements of the landscape, producing additional data layers for everything from water and vegetation to fences and trash cans.