The 2nd annual workshop of the Urban Sciences Research Coordination Network on June 11, 2014 in Chicago didn’t exactly set out to rival Spring Awakening – a thumpin’ electronic dance music festival occurring a few days later – but it turns out that social scientists, computer scientists, and young urban partygoers (Fig. 1) have much more in common than at first blush.
My invitation to the workshop came from Charlie Catlett, a computer scientist from Argonne National Laboratory and Director of the Urban Center for Computation and Data (UrbanCCD) at the Computation Institute of the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory. I first heard Charlie speak at my alma mater Virginia Tech’s Global Forum on Urban and Regional Resilience (GFURR) May 15 workshop ‘Building Resilient Cities: How Cities Can Harness the Power of Urban Informatics.’ Catchy, eh?
Charlie illustrated how computational models can be pressed into service to anticipate the impacts of design over decades to begin to answer simple statements with broad potential impact such as “These trees will clean the air.” (“Really? How do you know that?”) Another example included 311 call and census data linked to over 120,000 vacant properties in Cook County’s land bank: “how will we know where to invest in future neighborhood development?”
As I arrived and thanked Charlie for the invitation, stressing that as an architect and planner, I was surely an interloper at a conference geared toward social and computer scientists. After having Charlie allay my fears and settling in, aside from the occasional inevitable bits of specialized-disciplinary jargon, my stereotypes of what a computer and social science conference would be were quickly neutralized.
Presentations were clear, compelling, and made the case that ‘big data’ was more than buzz – it was immensely useful across a variety of disciplines, and with wide-reaching, transformational implications in our lives.
In “Poverty and Organizational Density,” Mario Small, an ethnographer at the University of Chicago (soon Harvard University), used the examples of actual urban neighborhoods – Woodlawn in Chicago, Harlem in New York, and Sunnyside in Houston (Fig. 2) – to illustrate how the interpretation of simple census data could challenge what our general notions of urban poverty really looks like, necessitating a collection of additional, more focused data, and better interpretation of that data.
Tom Schenk Jr., Director of Analytics and Performance Management at the City of Chicago talked about how a multidisciplinary team – which included the disciplines of economy, computer science, and machine learning among others – could apply data that was initially collected to improve the efficiency of city operations to begin to address questions from the Department of Planning such as “what will be the socio-economic changes for a given location in 5, 10, or 15 years?”
Douglas Pancoast, Professor of Architecture, Research, and Collaboration at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), presented The Array of Things (AoT), an urban sensing and embedded information systems collaboration with UrbanCCD and others, which will deploy streetlight-mounted sensor packages (Figs. 3,4) to collect and publish a range of data, from temperature and motion to air quality. While the latter conjures up thoughts of a fancier version of the cameras already used in many cities to catch you in the act of speeding, AoT will have no image capture or recording capabilities, with privacy protections a design principle. As such, AoT has the potential to be a new kind of public utility, one which could be tuned through its collection of hyper-localized data to produce dynamic information useful and more relevant to the needs of different communities.
There were several takeaways from this workshop for the layperson (which I consider myself, in this case).
First, questions are important.
Science, rather than having the answers ready-made, asks the research questions, which information helps to answer.
Second, data and information are distinct; with good interpretation, data – increasingly ubiquitous in our lives – may be refined into information, and may become more subjective and potent.
Finally, the data we generate, especially data of the kind those young concert attendees (Fig. 1) have been used to producing since their formative years – geolocated pics, Tweets, Likes, and the like – have the potential to rise, as we saw during recent events – social movements such as the Arab Spring, political upheaval in Ukraine, or after recent disasters in the Philippines and Eastern Europe – from the pedestrian to the powerful.
A footnote: To see big data in action in the City of Big Shoulders, interactive presentations introduce visitors to some great examples of urban informatics in action in Chicago: City of Big Data, at the Chicago Architecture Foundation until December 2015 (Fig. 5).