Professor Robert Stimson at the AURIN launch. Photo: AURIN

A national urban intelligence initiative launched today (Monday) is giving researchers, planners and policymakers easy access to big data in order for smarter, more sustainable planning decisions to be made.

The Australian Urban Research Infrastructure Network provides access to thousands of datasets, from Australian Property Monitors through to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Geoscience Australia and city councils. With it, researchers will be able to ask the big questions of big data, including how can cities can manage water and energy use in the context of rising populations, how can walkable neighbourhoods be created, and what factors lead to neighbourhoods combating the urban heat island effect?

One barrier to the use of this data in the past, according to Science in Public associate Tanya Ha, is the inordinate amount of time individual researchers must spend going through the process of acquiring data and cleaning it up to be analysed. It can take years.

What AURIN provides, Ms Ha told The Fifth Estate, is an efficient, uniform way of providing data in one place, so researchers can spend more time on the important part: analysis.

Director of AURIN Professor Robert Stimson said in the context of a growing Australian population – predicted to top 40 million by the middle of the century – evidence-based research and policy was crucial for achieving sustainable city development.

“The AURIN initiative is providing the data, integrated from multiple sources, and the analytical tools needed to make this happen,” he said.

Ms Ha said Australia had a history of smart planning – Adelaide’s grid and parklands, and the Melbourne city grid, for example – but had fallen behind innovative cities like Singapore, Chicago and Amsterdam.

With AURIN, of which there was “nothing like it internationally”, Australia could regain its reputation as a smart planner, she said.

According to Professor Bill Randolph, director of the City Futures Research Centre, Built Environment at the University of New South Wales, the benefit of AURIN is in it bringing together a diverse range of datasets, allowing for creative solutions to planning problems.

“Having a suite of datasets available creates a ‘data playground’ for researchers,” he said. “Exposure to these diverse datasets allows us to come up with serendipitous new insights and analyses, which may not have occurred without being exposed to the information. For example, housing, health and social disadvantage are closely related. Putting the data from these areas together allows you to play with these ideas.”

Professor Kate Auty, former Victorian Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability, and now vice-chancellor’s fellow at the University of Melbourne as well as on the AURIN board, said the collaborative data partnerships would produce environmental, economic and social co-benefits.

“The work already done by AURIN in bringing data and organisations together has made linkages across disciplines that are going to have a terrific legacy,” she said. “As a result of this work, we will be so much better able to plan, strategise and be tactical about the government expenditure decisions needed to achieve the desired outcomes.”

The AURIN Walkability Tool paints a picture of Melbourne’s most walkable neighbourhoods. Pictured: walkability at the metropolitan level
The AURIN Walkability Tool paints a picture of Melbourne’s most walkable neighbourhoods. Pictured: walkability at the metropolitan level.

Sustainability issues tackled through AURIN

There are already a number of tools available to use through AURIN, including a “walkability tool”, which allows researchers, planners and urban designers to measure, model and visualise urban walkability to inform policy.

Professor Billie Giles-Corti, director of the McCaughey VicHealth Centre for the Promotion of Mental Health and Community Wellbeing, was project leader for the walkability tool.

“One of the barriers to achieving a healthy level of physical activity can be the urban environment we live and work in. But despite the lip service given to the importance of walkable neighbourhoods, we’re still seeing low density, car-reliant ‘obesogenic’ new suburbs,” he said.

“In collaboration with colleagues at the University of Western Australia, we’ve developed databases and tools with AURIN so that planners can check the walkability of proposed new suburbs or find opportunities to improve the walkability of existing suburbs.”

Judy Bush, a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne, is using AURIN in her research on the urban heat island effect.

“The availability of urban greenery maps, land use data and climate data through AURIN has opened up the scope of what I could reasonably address within the limitations of a PhD investigation,” she said. “I can allocate more time to analysis, since I don’t have to do data collection from scratch or spend extra time on ethics approvals and other lengthy research red tape.”

Townsville City Council in Queensland is partnering with AURIN for a big data project to guide future energy and water supply.

The Townsville Data Hub will research  energy and water consumption trends to assist residents, business and the council plan for a sustainable future.

“Analysis of energy and water consumption data allows us to read the vital signs of our city, showing the flow and use of these resources as they support the activities of our homes and businesses,” Townsville mayor Jenny Hill said.

“We can use this knowledge to model the impact of proposed policies and make the choices needed to create a more sustainable future for our city and its citizens”.

The AURIN initiative has been funded through the federal government’s National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy.

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