Urban Informatics: Putting Big Data to Work in Our Cities

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.

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

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.

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.

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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.;

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