A Professor's Ruminations


Artist Statement and Pittsburgh Dataset Project (Model Essay)

By Matt Lavin

January 24, 2019

For my model essay, I wrote about Pittsburgh's municipal staircases. I have been interested in Pittsburgh's steps for some time because I often use them when taking walks or jogging. I had heard some time ago that the prevalence of staircases in the city had something to do with the city's labor history, but I didn't know how accurate that was. As a result, my initial goal for the assignment was to learn more about the steps and how they connected to the city's history. I also wanted to see what kinds of datasets I could find about the staircases, and what kinds of visualizations I could generate. 

After searching WPRDC, I quickly discovered that there had been a citywide study of the staircases, and that there was a publicly available dataset with lots of information about the staircases, including their locations (lat and long), as well as the material they are made of, what neighborhood they are in, and who is in charge of maintaining them. That got me thinking about how difficult they must be to maintain, which became a subject in my narrative. 

In terms of visualizing the staircases, an interactive map seemed like my best bet. The story of the Pittsburgh steps has a strong geographical component, which I knew I wanted to highlight in my narrative. Of the visualization tools we've discussed so far in class, Tableau is the easiest for creating an easy-to-use interactive map. My dataset already had latitude and longitude data, and that's all you need to create a map in Tableau. I also wanted to do something with staircases by neighborhood, but Tableau isn't best for this type of map, so I decided to put that on my To Do list for later in the term. 

In order to integrate Tableau with my Github Pages site, I decided to place Tableau's "publish to website" code inside of a larger html page, with minimal CSS styling. The bootstrap library has a nice feature to make a gray banner called a jumbotron, so I used that for both the narrative title and the browsable Tableau map at the bottom of my essay.

I don't consider this a finished product. I already mentioned that I would like to do something to show Pittsburgh's staircases by neighborhood, but I'd also love to add two additional dimensions of data. I mention in my essay that business tended to be down by the rivers and residential areas were on hilltops or hillsides. I'd love to integrate elevation data as topography to put al this into context. Similarly, I think it would be interesting to plot the locations of major steel mills or industrial loci in the city. I think this would dramatically increase a reader's sense of how the steps related to working class life. 

Finally, I mention in my essay that, according to the Pittsburgh Citywide Steps Assessment, about two-thirds of the steps are in low or moderate-income areas. I would like to overlay income data onto this map to show how these aspects of the city correlate. In the essay, I settled for mentioning the idea that the steps may gesture at a tale of two Pittsburghs, one using the steps out of need and the other (relatively privileged) using them for exercise and leisure. This is an important idea, but there's a lot I could do to develop this topic and think more deeply about income inequality. You can read my essay and view the Tableau map by visiting my Github Pages site