Applying Big Data to City Livability
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A number of progressive cities have made a wealth of data available to the public. The intention generally is to improve access, accountability and transparency of government. Thankfully, for citizens and consumers, an impressive network of software developers have grabbed the opportunity to deliver a vast array of applications allowing us to do everything from pay our bills, seek important but otherwise archaic information, entertain ourselves or just generally live our lives more conveniently.
This data is machine readable and available to anyone who seeks to do something with it. A number of clever startups and individuals have performed the necessary demographic research to arrive at something universally valuable or targeted at niche audiences.
Open urban data guidelines of note:
- Meets a public need or consumer demand
- Creates economic opportunity
- Improves public knowledge of an issue, program, government mandate, etc
So, the data has become more freely available but how does it reach the public in a way that makes it matter? Meeting the most basic criteria above, the data needs to be packaged, presented to us in such a way that it is useful and perhaps friendly enough that we would use it repeatedly. Then of course we need some type of network to deliver that information. Content presentation and network delivery are vital pieces of the puzzle and without them the data alone is just noise.
We all enjoy good content when we see it. I tried to quickly rattle off some top of mind consumer apps that I use over and over:
- HopStop – master the subway without really trying
- Yelp – good (or bad) restaurants around me right now
- Fandango – before that highly popular kids movie showtime gets sold out
- GasBuddy – ok, it’s more of a suburban thing…
- Hotel Tonight – last minute business hotels
- Seamless – urban food delivery. sadly, I don’t have it but others rave about it
There’s no reason city/government improvement apps shouldn’t provide same.
Most recently, the City of Moorhead, MN has been experiencing dangerous flood water levels and developed a very timely application on their website, called the Red River Flood monitor where residents can see exactly where the impact is to specific roads and neighborhoods.
All of these apps leverage some combination of public data, GPS location and prosumer input.
How do we inspire further development of these much needed applications? It would seem that there are no shortage of accelerator, incubator and competitions springing up around the global to energize the initiative of bringing to life powerful hidden data sets. Open Data competitions, like CleanWeb Hackathons and the NYC Open Data competition put a bounty on bright ideas that come out of pragmatic urban data mining. Fairly boring information like stormwater mitigation, air quality monitoring, crime awareness, street repair data sets become far more useful when correlated to help citizens avoid fees, travel safely or simply live better.
Now if I were standing at the platform of the subway in any given city, pull out my smartphone in an attempt use one of the aforementioned applications, ie, refresh my forgotten destination address or next subway stop, there is a good chance I won’t have network service to do so. Short of running up the stairs towards daylight and missing my train, there is not much I can do about this.
The subway is an obvious example barrier to last mile connectivity, however, there are many gaps in our infrastructure yet to be filled. How often have you been on the upper floor of a large commercial building attempting a cellphone call with a signal of barely 1 bar causing you to move to the windows or call the person back after descending the elevator. How ideal would it be to remain connected regardless of surroundings?
The list of urban connectivity dead zones goes on but there are a number of emerging technologies which will help us.
I had recently attended the NYC In-Building Wireless Conference and I was amazed at the standing-room-only crowd of building owners, technologists, lawyers and others intent on solving and capitalizing on this expensive infrastructure problem. The focus of the conference was largely on distributed antenna systems (DAS) and WiFi for general building data access and for solving problems specific to more complex venues like subways, healthcare facilities.
The NYC subway / Transit Wireless very recently celebrated the deployment of 36 new stations to provides a shared wireless infrastructure for wireless communications services for the New York City Transit Authority riders. The plan is to ultimately provide connectivity for up 277 underground subway stations by 2017. The service supports cellphone calls, WiFi data access and first responder frequencies for the busiest subway system in the world.
We need to address the wireless data infrastructure needs and fast, because according to Cisco’s Global Mobile Forecast:
- In 2012, 6B+ mobile devices generated over 10 exabytes of data
- By 2017, 10B+ mobile devices will generate over 120 exabytes of data
Video usage and the increase of machine-to- machine sensor communications will only exacerbate the issue of bandwidth constraints.
Clever engineering, creative financing and technological innovation, plus the lessons learned from extremely complex and costly environments like the NYC Subway will go a long to allowing us to access all of these awesome applications that we are growing so accustomed to.
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This article was originally published on September 8, 2020.
Update for April 20, 2021:
After the murder of George Floyd we wrote this article as a kind of blueprint, a beginning to a new way of working with equitable resilience in our cities and beyond. Now, as the trial of Derek Chauvin comes to a guilty verdict in Minneapolis and the whole country reflects on the legacy of that verdict, we have to remember another senseless murder – another young Black man, Daunte Wright, at the hands of law enforcement, just miles from the courthouse. Again, Minneapolis is all of us. We have protested, we have voted. We stood up, we spoke out, we have raged about the anti-Black racism. We have seen people come together, we can feel a shift in this country. But there is so much more to do. No equity, no resilience.
-Ron & Stewart
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