Big Data is Essential for Improving Urban Efficiency

Stephen DeAngelis

September 23, 2014

Clay Lucas (@ClayLucas) writes, “Cities that fail to embrace ‘big data’ – and the meteoric rise of smartphones and the internet – to get more out of their existing infrastructure will be left behind, according to one of the world’s leading ‘smart cities’ advocates.” [“Big data the key to improving urban efficiency,” Brisbane Times, 1 June 2014] The expert to whom Lucas refers is Carlo Ratti, a professor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Ratti told participants at the International Transport Forum in Leipzig, Germany, that “many disruptive internet applications had made it possible to get higher productivity out of the assets cities” already have on hand. Lucas continues:

“Professor Ratti was among a clutch of urban planning experts presenting at the forum. Many of the speakers focused on how ‘big data’ is already helping the planet run its cities far more efficiently. Professor Ratti and fellow presenters at the forum’s ‘Transport Innovation’ session argued that cities embracing innovations made available from this data – now flowing from smart phones in particular – will save or delay billions of dollars in infrastructure spending by working existing facilities harder.”

With more cities in the U.S. on the verge bankruptcy, delaying billions of dollars in new infrastructure spending could be an answer to prayers. That doesn’t mean, however, that money is not going to have to be spent. Funds will still be needed to maintain current infrastructure and to obtain systems that can take advantage of big data. Big data can only help make cities more efficient if the data is collected, stored, and analyzed. Some systems may have to be retrofitted with sensors; but, most new systems are likely to come equipped with sensors since machine-to-machine (M2M) communication and the Internet of Things (IoT) are coming into vogue. Julian Garcia Barbosa, Big Data Senior Account Executive at Telefónica, writes, “M2M and IoT solutions are an absolutely fundamental element of Smart City projects.” [“Big data and the road to smart cities,” Telecoms Tech, 28 May 2014] He continues:

“Installing thousands of sensors in public buildings (HVAC, lighting, security), energy management systems (smart meters, turbines, generators, batteries), transportation platforms (vehicles, lights, signage) and security systems (ambulances, video cameras, smoke detectors) allows us to use all of that data which is transmitted to a central server where it can be correlated and analysed with other sources of data turning it into meaningful information. Cloud computing technology is also an intrinsic part of Big Data and Smart City projects. The main drivers for the cloud adoption of Big Data are listed below:

  • Cost Reduction: Big Data environments require a cluster of servers to support the processing of large volumes, high velocity and varied formats of data and the cloud pay-per-use model will be financially advantageous.
  • Rapid provisioning/time to market: Big Data environments can be easily scaled up or down based on the processing requirements and the provisioning of the cloud servers could be done in real time.
  • Flexibility/scalability: Big Data analysis in smart city environments requires huge computing power for a brief amount of time and servers need to be provisioned in minutes. This kind of scalability and flexibility can only be achieved with cloud technologies avoiding the required investments in very expensive IT infrastructure by simply paying for the consumed computing resources on an hourly basis.

In a nutshell, if cities want to be smarter, more competitive and sustainable they will need to leverage Big Data as well as M2M and Cloud Computing technologies in order to achieve their goals. It won’t be an easy path at all but it will most definitely be worthwhile.”

Ben Hecht, President and CEO of Living Cities, believes that citizens, not just machines and systems, must be a part of the big data picture. [“Big Data Gets Personal in U.S. Cities,” New Cities Foundation, 30 May 2014] He writes:

“The City of Boston empowers residents to be their ‘eyes and ears’ when it comes to potholes, damaged signs and graffiti — People can report these issues via text, twitter, or using a mobile app. This type of innovation is part of a larger movement called ‘civic technology’ that drives the use of digital technologies and social media for civic engagement, among other goals. Civic tech ‘apps’ and ‘games’ range from platforms in New York, Philadelphia, and Phoenix that give citizens back the power to comment and participate on community projects and proposed budgets on their own time; and a bilingual participatory application in Chicago that helps community members ensure that their new park is maintained as a vibrant safe, open and healthy green space for the community.”

The point I’m trying to make is that technology is going to play an essential role in connecting people and systems and providing the data that will help analysts and urban planners understand more about the urban environment. Michael Batty reminds us that cities are constantly changing, which is why they need to be constantly monitored. “Cities,” he writes, “cannot be understood purely as growth mechanisms. They regenerate themselves by mixing what already exists in different ways.” [“Cities, Complexity, and Emergent Order,” Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, September 2011] Mellisa Tolentino insists “Smart cities need two things to thrive: People + speedy Internet.” [Silicon Angle, 18 June 2014] It has been said that high-speed Internet is as important for development today as electricity has been in the past. Tolentino writes, “It’s one thing to put sensors in almost every aspect of a city’s operations, from transportation to trash bins, but these efforts wouldn’t matter if residents cannot reap the benefits, or if data can’t be shared in real time due to slow Internet connections.” Jim Sinopoli (@jsinopoli), CEO of Smart Buildings, LLC, agrees with Tolentino that both people and technology are required to make cities smarter. “Planning and process change in a city is a collaborative activity,” he writes, “so a very broad organizational buy-in is needed. Yes, you need the senior city executives and different departments on board, but it’s also critical to involve the citizenry and co-op the people who will be directly affected by the proposed changes in their daily work. Put together the right project team from a cross-section of the organization to run the smart city project.” [“The Road to the Smart City,” Automated Buildings, July 2014] He continues:

“The key here is clearly identifying the real problems. You don’t want abstract goals and objectives; you want concrete steps that result in benefits for the city. If the proposed change is meant to streamline a process for citizens or a workflow for city staff, estimate the benefits of the proposed change and develop specific metrics to measure the effects and eventual success. Also identify expected benefits for other departments. An energy-management initiative might help purchasing and accounting departments, for instance, or a proposed workflow change might improve coordination with other departments. Two major goals should drive the changes: making city processes more efficient or effective and better aligning those processes with the city’s long term strategy.”

Batty believes that citizen involvement is critical because “cities emerge from the bottom up.” He believes that the most important aspects of urban development “are not planned but are the product of a multitude of decisions that accumulate and stream through time, subject to continual regeneration and renewal as conditions for development continually change.” Because cities are complex and living organisms, only real-time monitoring and analytics can help stakeholders understand how cities are transforming (both currently and in the long term).