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Drowning in Data, Cities Need Help

Urban planners have historically had to do their jobs with only the dimmest understanding of what’s going on. Now they have more information than they can handle.

When I was an urban planning student at the University of California, Los Angeles, more than 30 years ago, my area of concentration was known as the “built environment” -- the bricks and mortar, the form and design of the buildings, the streets, the sidewalks, the parks and everything else that makes up the way humans have manipulated the environment to create built spaces. The course of study led me to think that cities are pretty static: Buildings, roads and other structures are expensive and time-consuming to build, and they don’t change much over time.

If you want to understand how completely wrongheaded that way of thinking is, just check out Corridorscope. It’s a website created by the Alliance for Downtown New York and the Center for Urban Science and Progress at New York University, and it displays all kinds of data that shows just how dynamic a city is. Specifically it shows how Wi-Fi connections, 311 service requests, bike-share docking and trash compactors grow and shrink during the day as humans come and go. It’s a startling depiction of how one street in one neighborhood in one city changes over the course of the day.

This kind of information isn’t just fun to look at. It’s also a powerful way to help cities understand what’s really going on and how they can better manage urban systems. For most of human history, urban managers have had to do their jobs with only the dimmest understanding of what’s going on -- with the possible exception of vehicle traffic, which is maybe the only thing that has been comprehensively tracked by cities over the past several decades. Now, however, we are awash in data. Not long ago, I got a briefing from Houston’s analytics department about how the open data effort was going. The answer was, “We’re doing OK, considering we have 2,000 data sets.”

Which is why the democratization of data may be the most important urban trend in the long run. No city government, university or consulting firm can possibly figure out how best to use all the data we now have. The future lies in having everybody who understands how to manipulate data -- from sophisticated engineering professors to smart kids in poor neighborhoods -- mess around with it in order to come up with useful solutions.

And the solutions are no longer top-down. They’re also bottom-up. Yes, we can use data and technology to improve the way urban systems work, such as by having cameras on fire trucks discover new potholes or using sensors on trash compactors to tell the city when to pick up the garbage. But it also works to tell residents about those things. In an open data environment, once city officials know where the potholes are, residents using apps can also take that information and figure out how to avoid them. Once the city knows which trash cans to empty, the Average Joe can also figure out where there’s a trash can with some room. This, more than anything, makes urban systems work better than ever before.

Director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University and former mayor of Ventura, Calif.
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