Urban Informatics: Putting Big Data to Work in Our Cities

by   |   February 18, 2016 5:30 am   |   0 Comments

Dr. Steven E. Koonin, founding Director, NYU Center for Urban Science and Progress

Dr. Steven E. Koonin, founding Director, NYU Center for Urban Science and Progress

For the first time in history, more than half of the people in the world live in urban areas. Now more than ever, cities are supporting rapidly increasing populations while struggling to maintain services, operations, and quality of life for their inhabitants.

As cities grow, the task of understanding how they work is becoming a pressing global issue. Currently, about 80 percent of the U.S. and about 50 percent of the world’s population resides in urban areas, growing at over 1 million people per week. In the face of unprecedented growth, cities are faced with a unique challenge: refurbishing and maintaining existing infrastructures to support their current inhabitants while also planning sufficiently to accommodate future populations. If growth patterns continue at this speed, by 2050, 64 percent of people in the developing world, and 85 percent of people in the developed world, will call an urban area their home.

But while global urbanization seemingly presents myriad challenges, it also offers a potential solution – in the form of data. Thanks to the digital revolution, we now have more information at our disposal than ever before, and the amount of data that urban areas are generating is truly staggering. In New York City alone, the local government creates a terabyte of raw data every day, with information on everything from parking tickets to electricity.

So how do we use this data to extract valuable information? The emerging field of urban science is dedicated to answering that question.

Urban Science

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Scientists and governments are finding ways to unite two extraordinarily profound developments in human history: the digital revolution and global urbanization. The result is the nascent field of urban informatics, the use of data to better understand how cities work.  Using urban informatics, large-scale data and analytics can be interpreted to address problems and create solutions for operations, planning, and development.

The chief task of urban scientists is to give structure and new meaning to the sea of information that people produce every day. Cities collect data from two main sources: the digitized records of commercial and government files from years past, and the ever-growing pool of sensors and data-collection tools throughout our society.

The Role of Physicists

Given the amount of data available to interpret, many urban scientists have adopted methods from another field: physics. In the past, the set of tools and methods that physicists use has been applied to other sciences, such as astronomy and biology. Physicists are trained to solve complicated problems, handle large data sets, develop new instrumentation, work with interdisciplinary teams, and apply procedures to avoid self-deception. They have a tradition of organizing large groups of scientists focused on specific research questions. The sheer amount of data that a metropolis can produce makes urban science studies especially suited to the same concepts of scientific inquiry that physicists use on a daily basis.

Urban Informatics in Action

By bringing big data into the public sphere, researchers can analyze and improve the ways in which city agencies work together to provide services, as well as the ways in which they interact with their citizens. Sensors can report real-time traffic conditions, utility supply and consumption, public transportation activity, environmental quality, and crime.

In a recent project, my colleagues at New York University’s Center for Urban Science and Progress and I launched a project to monitor noise in Brooklyn, NY. We mounted sound sensors on streetlight poles and building facades to gauge the volume of house parties and car horns. This data can be distributed to city agencies, giving officials research that can help them to enforce noise ordinances that are often overlooked in large cities like New York.

Big data offers the potential to provide citizens with new ways to observe and interact with their cities. Officials can track smartphones to understand road congestion and send more accurate news alerts out to the public. Knowing pollution levels block by block can help families choose where to live. In addition to these more practical uses, social media tools like Facebook, Twitter, and other mobile devices provide detailed data streams on what people are doing, how they are feeling, and what they are observing. In aggregate, these data streams are signatures of the functioning of the metropolis and the quality of life of its inhabitants. This information can be collected and analyzed to identify issues and provide insight into potential solutions for everything from public Wi-Fi connection problems to neighborhood crime levels.

Beyond its potential impact on urban life, municipal data can provide a valuable resource to a city’s economy. Knowledge of noise and pollution levels can help cities to collect greater revenue for violations. Retailers may use pedestrian traffic data to choose optimal store locations. Sensors in trash cans can help the sanitation department optimize collection schedules and routes.

As urban science continues to evolve, researchers are seeking new ways to identify new uses for the data that cities collect every day. With this information and these data-collection tools at our disposal, we hope to refurbish and improve existing cities, and to build future cities with efficiency, quality of life, and resilience in mind.

Steven E. Koonin was appointed as the founding Director of NYU’s Center for Urban Science and Progress in April 2012. This consortium of academic, corporate, and government partners pursues research and education activities to develop and demonstrate informatics technologies for urban problems in the “living laboratory” of New York City. Prior to his NYU appointment, Dr. Koonin served as the second Under Secretary for Science at the U.S. Department of Energy from May 2009 through November 2011. In that capacity, he oversaw technical activities across the Department’s science, energy, and security activities and led the Department’s first Quadrennial Technology Review for energy. Before joining the government, Dr. Koonin spent five years as Chief Scientist for BP plc, where he played a central role in establishing the Energy Biosciences Institute. Dr. Koonin was a professor of theoretical physics at California Institute of Technology (Caltech) from 1975-2006 and was the Institute’s Provost for almost a decade. He is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the JASON advisory group. Dr. Koonin holds a B.S. in Physics from Caltech and a Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics from MIT (1975) and is an adjunct staff member at the Institute for Defense Analyses.

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