Big data has the potential to transform cities.

3 September 2013 — Big data is a sexy term for a not-so-sexy concept: mass amounts of information being analysed to find hidden patterns buried beneath terabytes of numbers. But it has the potential to transform cities, Leon Gettler finds.

MIT Engineering Systems PhD student Jameson Toole says one of the big drivers of big data is the mobile phone.

He has been researching this area and aims to harness the stockpile of information collected by our electronic devices. Whether it’s via an app or simply the data a phone company collects about its customers, Toole says information stored in mobile phones can be valuable in urban planning.

“Mobile phones are amazing data sensors,” says Toole. “Every time you use your cellphone, there is a little breadcrumb that’s stored that can be used in a lot of different ways to help improve human lives.”

What’s fascinating about it is its potential impact on cities. Big data can create opportunities through designing better, more efficient buildings and machines. The result: better performance, service and sustainability.

A good example is what’s happening right now in Da Nang, Vietnam. The city is working with IBM, installing software and sensors on Da Nang’s buses, roads and highways. This will allow city planners to synchronise traffic lights and minimise car congestion, while getting the most out of its limited public transport system.

The technology allows for data to be aggregated from multiple streams. City planners can analyse these streams to detect anomalies and control Da Nang’s flow of traffic. It’s a system that will create real-time information for city planners, which will allow them to view details such as the location of each bus, their current speeds and predicted journey times.

This data can then be shared with passengers, either through video screens at bus stations or via mobile apps. They expect this will encourage more people to use the buses and reduce the number of cars on the road.


It’s happening in Australia, too. Townsville City Council and IBM have received an award at the 2013 National Infrastructure Awards, for a Smart Water Pilot that can deliver “near real-time information about daily water use to the city council and residents along with personalised and actionable insights all via a web portal”.

The ability of the technology is to empower positive behavioural change. That’s important for a place like Townsville.

Like many towns or cities located in the tropics, it has extreme seasons. It’s either very wet or very dry.

As with Da Nang, it’s an example of how big data can change behaviour and create a more sustainable city.

In Norway, they have created bus stops that tweet and provide the time of the next bus via QR Codes.When somebody scans the code, the bus stop automatically tweets and tells you when the next bus is due.

A new Dublin startup has developed a better way of looking for parking spaces. ParkYa is creating a new smart phone app that signposts parking locations around the city and allows users to pay for parking through their phone.

It is designed to ease congestion coming from drivers filling the roads looking for parking spots. The app will be free and the company’s revenues will come from payment providers at the car parks and from selling business analytics through the data collected with the app.

The City of San Francisco has mapped all the trees as part of an effort to map and illustrate the health, water, air quality and economic benefits of trees. One site showing these benefits is UrbanForestMap.

And Treehugger tells us that the American Wind Wildlife Institute is collecting and analysing decades of data from the wind industry and providing more accurate analysis of wind/wildlife impacts to industry and government. Big data comes not only from posts to social media sites, mobile signals and purchase transactions. It can also come from sensors on objects from lamp-posts to skyscrapers.

Big data will be also be driven by the Internet of Things, where every day physical objects will be connected to the Internet and will be able to identify themselves to other devices – think of appliances like smart fridges being linked to the web and smartphones, alerting us when they have problems.

As The Guardian reports, the Internet of Things could create household good products, like for example your dishwater communicating with you to give a personal record that can help reduce water and energy use. It could result in medical devices like glucose monitors that come with dietary advice and medicines that provide online side-effect alerts and tests.

Or wine and spirits bottles that provide not just terroir history and cocktail tips, but also personalised healthy drinking advice. All that will generate more data.

This has enormous implications for urban planning.

“We need to build cities that adapt to the needs of their citizens but previously it was not possible because there was not enough information,” says Dr Lisa Amini, director of IBM Research.

Imagine for example if urban planners could predict where traffic was going to be bad on a given day and devise ways to encourage drivers to go a different direction.

The Urban Centre for Computational Data in the Chicago is looking at computer models helping cities to figure out how things like a new bus line might impact crime, employment and energy use in parts of a city. There is little question that how our cities are built and function will be changed by data analytics.

They are looking to analyse urban data and build complex computer models that simulate the impact of policy decisions and development for cities and their inhabitants. Urban planners and architects can simulate the energy and infrastructure needs of new, large-scale developments with unprecedented depth of detail, and that’s before construction even begins.

“We’re seeing accelerated urbanisation globally, outpacing traditional tools and methods of urban design and operation,” said UrbanCCD director Charlie Catlett, CI senior fellow and senior computer scientist at Argonne National Laboratory.

“The consequences are seen in inefficient transportation networks belching greenhouse gasses and unplanned city-scale slums with crippling poverty and health challenges. There is an urgent need to apply advanced computational methods and resources to both explore and anticipate the impact of urban expansion and find effective policies and interventions.”

How big can big data go?

CIA chief technology officer Ira “Gus” Hunt gives us an idea of the dimensions in a presentation he gave at a conference on data and how much of it is out there. You can check it here out on YouTube. The statistics are extraordinary: seven billion searches done on Google every day; 390 million tweets a day; 35 per cent of the world’s photographs stored on Facebook; 6.1 trillion text messages sent per year; and on and on.

Hunt says the CIA see the reams and reams of data and wants to “grow the haystack and magnify the needles”. Growing the haystack would be easy. But magnifying those needles is the real challenge.

Still, it’s fair to say that limited disclosure of personal data of our mobile phones and Internet usage – or no disclosure at all – usually creates distrust among consumers, and that’s something that urban planning big data advocates should strive to avoid.

And that’s a real challenge. As demonstrated by the NSA controversy, or by Facebook’s seemingly endless series of privacy missteps, many organisations aren’t doing a good job of stating their data-usage intentions. And in some cases (for example, national security, law enforcement or general nefariousness), it’s intentional.

That means one thing: data collectors and government agencies have to spell out exactly what they plan to do with the data and how they’re going to share it. When it comes to their personal data and how it’s used, people generally don’t like surprises so it must be managed.

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