Urban imagination: The real promise of data in today’s cities

Urban imagination: The real promise of data in today’s cities

[Catch Emma Stewart in person at VERGE SF 2014, October 27-30.]

Today over half the global population lives in urban areas; by 2050, the UN projects that number to grow to 70 percent. The World Economic Forum forecasts we’ll need to develop the same amount of infrastructure that’s been built over the past 4,000 years to accommodate the coming wave of urbanites. This will only compound the fact that cities are already responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions, sewage overflows and air pollution.

Many believe technology will solve the urbanite plight with mountains of collected data. Everything will have a wireless sensor and be connected to the cloud — from transit card swipes to smart energy meters to air quality monitors to taxi rides to 311 calls. New York City, which produces 1 terabyte of this type of data per day, has a dedicated analytics team to manage and parse through the deluge.

And yet, for most, today’s vision of a smart city remains an elusive luxury. Even if every city had a Chief Information, Data, or Technology Officer, it’s quite likely that in the breathless optimism of chasing a smart city, decision-makers would end up spending billions metering and sensoring every inch, only to discover that the results fall short.

They'll be obvious (“yep, crossing the 520 bridge in Seattle any time after 4 p.m. is a nightmare, though any local could tell you that”) or come too late (we spend all that time on data collection, and quietly passed the tipping point of dangerous climate change). They could turn cities into the equivalent of airport security checkpoints, where nothing is private and public distrust is at an all-time high. They may unintentionally create “automaton” cities where decision-making is so automated or restricted to a small group of data scientists that it becomes devoid of citizen input. They could become smart but unimaginative (reflecting what’s happening, but be incapable of simulating the complexities of what could be).

So how can we make more out of collected data while also simulating alternatives to today’s messy reality?

At the risk of oversimplifying a complex topic, we can boil it down to three fundamentals.

1. Create a master repository of data that acts as a “single source of truth” — as with national security intelligence failures in the past, data that lives in silos is the bane of true understanding and decision-making.

2. Use that data to imagine future scenarios and simulate possible outcomes — analyze projects from every angle in the virtual world before ever breaking ground in the real one.

3. Prove the economic, environmental and social benefits of projects in order to secure increasingly scarce financing.

Let’s not get too swept up in a technological future that is, at worst, a costly diversion — and at best, unevenly distributed. Let’s instead refocus our discourse on the real promise of data in today’s cities: simulating the thriving and sustainable city that could be, and securing the funds to get us there.

Top image of city by Dahabian via Shutterstock. This article originally appeared in Quartz in a longer form.