Crunching Big Urban Data

Crunching Big Urban Data

John Rossant is the founder and chairman of the  

Aaron Seward: To begin with, city planners have obviously used data for a long time in order to do their jobs, but now when we discuss Big Data we’re talking about an evolution in the sort of data they’re getting and how they’re using it. What exactly is Big Data and how are planners using it to make our cities more efficient and better places to live?

John Rossant: I guess there are a few things. One is the impact on connectivity that the web has had everywhere, not only in allowing people to communicate as we do on the internet, but also in allowing objects to communicate with other objects. That’s a game changer. That has also led to a massive quantum increase in real time data coming in from a variety of sensors. If you go into literally any city today and look up on a lamppost there are cameras, temperature gauges, traffic meters, air quality monitors, and a whole variety of sensors that are tracking our movements, etc. And then there’s the miniaturization of these kinds of things, which has enabled their proliferation. That’s what I think of as Big Data. There’s literally a massive amount of it.

We have a largely positive view of it. We think it does well for city managers and gives them the ability to make a much better city, particularly in terms of energy use, mobility, and security. Security is a huge issue. It should be among the first priorities of any city government to make sure residents can move around without fear, and Big Data can really make that easier to ensure. But of course, there’s a whole realm of possible negative sides to this, which is the potential of the all-seeing, all-knowing State, which I think can be worrying. I think that enough people are concerned about this issue, particularly in our freer countries in the West that we’ll be able to come up with guidelines for the use of all this data. There’s a very interesting startup in New York, for example, which runs real time analytics from CCTV feeds. Right from the get-go, they’ve addressed the issue of privacy by not using facial recognition software. Its only purpose is to look at flows of traffic.

So how do we ensure that Big Data isn’t used as a means of oppression as opposed to a tool, and a very powerful one at that, for effecting real progress?

Well it all comes down to who uses Big Data? If it’s used in a democratic way, which is the tendency so far in this country, then there’s not much to worry about. Look at what Rahm Emanuel has done in Chicago by making all of the data they collect open to anybody who wants it. That allows citizen groups to build things from the ground-up. That’s the approach that I favor. The other side, in more authoritarian societies, Big Data will not be opened up publically, but it will be for the use of whoever is in charge of the city and long-term planning.

What’s going to be interesting is that the price of these sensors is dropping dramatically. It allows you to do things that could never have been dreamed of even five years ago. What will be interesting is to see how it is used in some of these big new greenfield urban projects that are going up, largely in Asia and the Middle East. How are they going bake this stuff into their urban structure from the beginning? In New York or London you have to retrofit systems. In Songdo, Korea, it’s going to be a ground-up smart city with built-in Big Data collection and real-time analytics, so it will be interesting to see how that works out.

There are the obvious arenas in which Big Data can be used to create efficiencies, such as traffic flows and energy usage, but are you seeing any more specific targeted niches in which data is being utilized to make cities smarter?

Sure. Just look at something kind of mundane, but extremely pervasive, like street lighting. The whole world of street lighting is going to be upended by using data in a very smart way. You can modulate the intensity of lighting according to the traffic. If the system senses people are there, it will light up. There’s no reason to light the street if no one is using it. So you have energy savings. They’re doing this in Chicago and they’re doing it a lot in LA. Parking is another big area where data has a huge potential to make a positive impact. There are new apps coming out in this field daily that allow you to find parking easily. Boston has rolled one out, as have other cities. One of the biggest impacts though, and I know you mentioned traffic, is mobility. But it’s not only in geo-localized services like Uber, but in the whole promise of seamless, multi-modal transportation in the city. If you live in Bronxville or Westchester and you work in Midtown, you will be able to find the most efficient way on any given day to get to work, whether it’s by car, bus, subway, water taxi, whatever. It will be mining real data and it will allow you to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible.

You mentioned greenfield cities, these urban areas particularly in Asia and the Middle East that are being built from scratch with smart technologies integrated into their DNA, so to speak. Is there any benefit to that as compared to the job of retrofitting our older cities to use Big Data?

The challenges of greenfield cities have yet to be discovered. We don’t know that much about them here in the U.S. We don’t have many examples. One of the main challenges of the greenfield city doesn’t come so much from whether or not you integrate Big Data analytics, it’s how do you make a greenfield city an attractive place to live and work. Look at some of the new cities going up in China. They’re fairly soulless places. It’s almost a given that there’s going to be sensors, there’s going to be software and algorithms, but to what degree can Big Data be used to make a city a more vibrant, more interesting place? If you boil it down to efficiency, it doesn’t make it a very sexy place to live. If you look at someone like Daniel Libeskind, he thinks of the role of memory in the creation of our experience of a city. If you have a new city, you need some mechanism for people to relate to the buildings and their place among them, or else it’s going to be like George Orwell’s 1984: a soul destroying place.

The ultimate question is what makes cities exciting places to live in the first place? Part of the beauty of cities is that you never know what’s going to happen when you step out the door! If you know everything in advance, well, I don’t know how we’re going to react to that.

So Big Data is here and here to stay for at least the foreseeable future. And while it has clear benefits for our cities and our society, you don’t seem to be its biggest booster.

Big Data can and will make things more efficient. If you look at the savings in heating and lighting houses, the savings to the body politic in not keeping street lights on, or the savings in terms of the gas you’re not going to use looking for parking, this will give more money back to cities and individuals who will then spend it in more interesting ways, hopefully. I’m all for efficiencies. We’re never going to get to a place like in The Lego Movie with these automatons moving round doing the same thing every day. As a species we just don’t do that. Big Data is very exciting, it’s changing everything, but when it comes to smart cities and networks, they’re only as smart as the people that run them. The challenge is making sure that we have city administrators who understand these issues. The other question is top-down or bottom-up? Look at Rio De Janeiro’s experiment with big data. They got IBM to build a big operations center for the city, like NASA’s Mission Control Center in Houston. It’s great on several levels, as it centralizes data in a very chaotic city and includes more informal urban areas like the favelas. On the other hand, centralizing it is very expensive, and it’s a very top-down approach. Is that the best kind of approach? I don’t know.

The other issue, and one that no one has done any good work on, is that the more we’re individually and collectively reliant on Big Data, what happens if in a crisis it’s turned off or the system goes awry? We had a little of that during Sandy, when the cell network went out in Lower Manhattan. It made it basically unlivable below 34th Street. We need to think more about our reliance on these things and on the fact that they can leave people stranded. We have to hope that we don’t get to a point where we will have forgotten the more informal types of communication we used to have, like just talking to people.