The Hope of Urban Informatics

by Ethan Crowther

 

The world is experiencing the highest rate of urbanization in human history. Half of the world’s population (3.5 billion) lives in cities. That number is expected to double by 2050. And cities in the developing world will account for 96% of the projected growth.

urbanization_infographic

Urbanization Rate of Economies (Source: Digital image. Center for Urban Studies and Progress at New York University. N.p., n.d. Web.)

 

Urban research is dedicated to solving issues in cities. It has historically relied on data collected from censuses, surveys, schedules, and specialized sensor systems. While these methods have been valuable, they are lacking in cost-effectiveness, scalabilty, and easily implementation, and responsiveness to user surveys.

Technological, institutional, social innovations have ushered in the era of big data—structured and unstructured data generated organically from transactional, operational, planning, and social activities not specifically designed for research. It offers new data streams to complement and enhance the existing urban data infrastructure, and it is bringing about a paradigm shift from traditional theory-building to data-informing approaches.

The vastness of data generated in urban environments today. Applied Urban Science And Informatics. Digital image. Center for Urban Studies and Progress at New York University. N.p., n.d. Web.

The vastness of data generated in urban environments today. (Source Applied Urban Science And Informatics. Digital image. Center for Urban Studies and Progress at New York University. N.p., n.d. Web.)

 

While big data is commonly associated with sensor data or data generated by social media or citizen science, it extends well beyond that to include:

  • Administrative data: Individual data collected by government service agencies
  • Private sector data: Financial information, purchasing behaviors
  • Art and humanities data: Archival collections from museums
  • Transactional data: Uber rider data, retail purchases

The deluge of big data has given rise to the field of urban informatics: “the use of information and communications technology to better understand metropolitan needs, challenges, and opportunities”. Big data introduces new possibilities but also presents new challenges:

  • Technological challenges of processing, analyzing, and drawing insights from an endless volume of data
  • Limitations of current statistical methods designed for small sample sizes to generalize from much larger ones3
  • Computational challenges of integrating new data with existing urban modeling and linking data from different data owners and domains
  • Gaining access to privately held data from businesses
  • Privacy implications of using highly valuable personal identifiable information even in the public interest

Big data holds great promise. But first urban informatics must overcome the hurdles that stand in the way of fully realizing its potential. The potential to solve for the impending challenges of global urbanization and the subsequent demands on cities worldwide.

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