UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources


Mapping project

Mapping cross disciplinary research interests in cities & resources at UCL.

7 November 2013

Sustainability is a research problem that escapes disciplinary constraints and benefits from cross disciplinary working, as the collaborations produced by UCL’s Grand Challenge of Sustainable Cities have shown. To further support this type of work and enable connections amongst researchers currently working on urban or resources issues, UCL ISR commissioned a mapping exercise to scope the research landscape at UCL.

The project was carried out for the Symposium ‘Sustainable Resources for Sustainable Cities’ held in November 2013. It resulted in an interactive map on which 441 UCL researchers can be clustered by resource, research interest, department, geographic area of expertise or research application.

The project developed through interviews with UCL academics representing a broad array of disciplinary perspectives and with experience of cross-disciplinary research on cities and resources. The project also drew on a literature review of Environmental Justice; a theoretical framing which critiques the production and deployment of knowledge used to manage urban resources.  

This field of research questions the relationship between the organisation of knowledge and the organisation of cities, asking whose interests are served by the way that resources are valued and consumed or protected. It questions, for example, whether the knowledge produced in the heart of London, a post-industrial city of the global north is adequately engaging with the social, environmental and economic priorities of the cities in the Global South, home to the world’s fastest growing urban populations. 

Through this process of consultation and review the map was designed as a deinstitutionalised conceptual space in which thematic and geographic connections could be drawn between researchers. The landscape was populated through a survey which invited academics, researchers and PhD students to put their interests on the map. Additional researchers were identified by their interests listed on the university’s research system IRIS. These interests were coded with key words, Environmental Justice labels as well as UCL’s central research themes.   

The resulting online visualisation map/tool, designed and built by Martin Zaltz Austwick at CASA and Charlotte Johnson at UCL ISR, allows UCL’s research terrain to be navigated in a number of ways.  Users can select the themes that are relevant to their research interests and find people who share these interests.  Equally important as this interactive network, are the absences that can be identified. The map draws attention to gaps in the research field and the relative distances between departments around specific themes or resources.  

The following images demonstrate these attributes of the map. Each red dot represents a unique researcher, whose research interests can be identified by selecting one or more of the nodes listed on the left of the screen.  

In the first image below (Image 1), the map is used to cluster researchers by resource and geographic expertise.  This image shows the clusters of people working on Transport, Waste and Latin America. It shows that eight people are working on transport in Latin America, while two people are working on both transport and waste in Latin America.  

Image 1: Dynamic clustering to identify research synergies and gaps

 Dynamic clustering to identify research synergies and gaps

In the second image (Image 2) the map is being used to show how closely departments are connected to a research theme.  In this case the Sustainable Cities theme is selected and the resultant image illustrates the relative interest of this topic within departments; the greater the proportion of people in a department sharing a research interest, the closer the department is pulled to the theme. 

Image 2: Departmental proximity to the Sustainable Cities research theme

 Departmental proximity to the Sustainable Cities research theme

In this image it is possible to see that there are two departments housing the largest proportion of UCL researchers who have chosen Sustainable Cities as a research interest; Development Planning Unit (DPU) and Civil, Environmental & Geomatic Engineering (CEGE).  Of these two, DPU is pulled more closely to the theme while CEGE, which has a similar number of people working on this topic, remains a bit further away.  This indicates the larger proportion of researchers at CEGE working on cities and resources who have not selected Sustainable Cities as a research theme.  

These images demonstrate two of the ways that the map can be used to navigate the cross discipline research landscape at UCL. Other applications include the analysis of multi-discipline skillsets within departments, or research teams. 

The long term aim is to create a fully interactive web-based tool which will lead to new research collaborations as users to navigate UCL’s extensive cross disciplinary expertise on cities and resources finding research synergies and identifying research gaps. 

The tool is currently under development. If you are interested in the mapping project please contact Charlotte Johnson, UCL ISR.

Complementing this critical engagement with urban forms and resource use is a short film on sewage.  Three UCL academics discuss their take on London’s drainage, exposing the contested history and alternative futures of London’s Victorian infrastructure. View Charlotte's video.