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Award winners Dietmar Offenhuber, Sandra Eibenberger, Isabella Rauch.
Photo by Scott Mason.

Art + Design faculty member Dietmar Offenhuber, Assistant Professor and Program Coordinator for the Information Design and Visualization graduate offerings, recently earned the Austrian Scientists in North America (ASciNA) Award 2017 for his book entitled Waste Is Information, which was published in September. Dietmar won the main award category, the Young Principal Investigator prize. The ASciNA Award, awarded by ASciNA and endowed with prize money by the Federal Ministry of Science, Research and the Economy (BMWFW), is a science prize exclusively dedicated to young researchers for their excellent scientific publications, which have been published within the last year and prepared during a stay at a North American research institution. The selection of the award winners is carried out by the Austrian Science Fund on the basis of an international assessment.

Dietmar’s book examines waste from the perspective of information. By looking at three waste tracking and participatory sensing projects in Seattle, São Paulo, and Boston, his research explores emerging practices and technologies for making waste systems legible and how the resulting datasets and visualizations shape infrastructure governance. He strategically chose these three locations because Seattle is considered one of the most environmentally advanced cities in America that ships a large part of its recyclables and electronics to Asia and the rest of the U.S.; São Paulo is a birthplace of the waste picker movement in Latin America, and the government has introduced very interesting policy for integrating waste pickers into the formal system; and Boston is one of the leaders in Civic Technology and experimenting with new technologies for making urban governance more responsive to citizen needs.

“As an architect, information designer, and urban planner, I have always been interested in how we experience and ‘read’ urban systems,” explained Dietmar. “In the case of infrastructures such as waste systems ‘we’ refers to actors such as the public works department, companies, field operators, activists and residents – each of them sees the system differently, and never in its completeness. My book is based on the idea that all these partial legibilities of a system shape its governance discourse. How a powerful group perceives a system is a strong driver of policy.”

The book is interesting from the perspective of emerging fields such as urban informatics, dealing with questions of how data can be collected and utilized to improve cities. Among architects, planners, sociologists and designers there is currently also a lot of interest in studying infrastructures and all the social and cultural practices that are connected to them.

“Waste systems are very elusive, complex and multifaceted infrastructures, and they are usually discussed from an environmental or social justice perspective,” continued Dietmar. “I think that waste systems have a much larger cultural significance, and many of their problems are related to questions of design.”

Congratulations to Dietmar, as well as the two other Austrian researchers who were recognized, Sandra Eibenberger and Isabella Rauch.