Big Data and Urban Planning

1.22.2013 | Can “big data” help design and build better cities? Many scientists apparently think so, based on the number of new initiatives in “informatics”– the acquisition, integration, and analysis of data to understand and improve urban systems and quality of life.

One of those is the new Urban Center for Computation and Data (UrbanCCD) at the University of Chicago. The research center is using advanced computational methods to understand the rapid growth of cities. The center brings together scholars and scientists from the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory with architects, city planners, and many others.

Global cities, said the center’s director Charlie Catlett, are growing at such a pace to outpace traditional tools and methods of urban design and operation. “The consequences,” he writes on the center’s website, “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.”

The center hosted a gathering of planners and others in December. The City of Chicago’s Chief Technology Officer John Tolva, whose department has released a storehouse of data to the center, talked about the city’s initiative to release more city data to the public through sites. As we’ve written before, the city is using data to track a variety of services that make life in the city more livable. provides a “Plow Tracker” so residents can track the city’s 300 snow plows in real-time and uses online tools to help organize a  “Snow Corps,” essentially neighbors helping neighbors, like seniors or the disabled, shovel sidewalks and walkways. My personal favorite is the app that lets me know when the next bus is arriving. When it’s 2 degrees, it’s nice to be able to time the sprint to the bus. Similarly, Boston’s  Office of New Urban Mechanics created a SnowCOP app to help city managers respond to requests for help during snow storms.  The Office has more than 20 apps designed to improve public services, like new apps that mine data from residents’ mobile phones to address infrastructure projects. But it’s not just large cities. Jackson, MI, tracks water use to identify potentially abandoned homes. The list goes on.

Some of these fall under the heading “making life easier.” But data can be applied to more strategic, visionary planning. According to UrbanCCD’s website, Catlett’s vision for the role of computation in cities takes a broader view, “combining models on environment and climate with the flood of open city data to build complex simulations for city planning.”

Such an approach can analyze things as food deserts, the impact of infrastucture on health, a map of demolitions or building code violations, or my favorite, a map of building footprints.

Some of that data sets the team can draw on include:

  • 740 data sets (including 311, crime, inspections, code violations, financial, GPS vehicle movement)
  • Data sets from State of Illinois, Cook County, and City of Chicago law enforcement, education, health, employment, and welfare agencies
  • Consumer survey (nationwide), product purchase, advertisement data.
  • Electrical usage and building details for 480,000 Chicago buildings
  • Longitudinal data on assets and services for South Side of Chicago neighborhoods.
  • Chicago buildings and transport systems

UrbanCCD isn’t the only one in this field.  The Urban Systems Collaborative (USC) is a  group of professionals in urban planning and design, architecture, finance, engineering, property and infrastructure development, who are using data in decision-making.

Likewise, the Center for Urban Science and Progress at New York University is also focused on big data and urban planning. Speaking at a USC symposium, its director Steven Koonin, a theoretical physicist, noted the potential of all this information to help us understand the relationship between psychology, human behavior, and the physical sciences.

As they write on their site, “social scientists bring us a question, CUSP researchers figure out how to acquire relevant data, then together with social scientists analyze and interpret that data.” One project, for example, focuses on how noise influence crime and real estate values.

And to ensure we train enough people to actually use data smartly, the Center, according to Planetizen, is supporting 50 full-time senior researchers over the next five years. This year also kicks off a graduate degree in Urban Science and Informatics geared toward producing graduates for public agencies, private data providers, startups, and non-governmental organizations.

No doubt there’s many kinks and questions to work out, including issues of privacy, data collection, and more. But it’s certainly a more interesting use of “big data” than to simply sell us more stuff.


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