There is no shortage of data zooming in and around cities on any given day. We know how many cars go through a certain intersection, how many people use the parks and how many people are arrested. But beyond the raw numbers, we don’t always know much, because we don’t always know what to do with that data.
That’s why “Smart Cities” are important, and it’s why the emerging research partnerships between cities and universities are a key to making cities operate better and more efficiently. In the same way technology and data are helping to make your home “smart” — for example, calibrating your thermostat based on real-time conditions rather than pre-determined temperatures — they are helping to making cities “smart” as well.
Cities are complicated machines, and the flow of data emerging from the daily functioning of cities is so large as to be overwhelming. Among other things, sensors embedded in municipal facilities have provided vast data about the urban environment. Sensors embedded in streetlights can detect everything from air quality problems to the number of pedestrians passing by the location. In addition, huge amounts of data constantly come in from from other sources, such as traffic and ride-sharing apps and twitter feeds. This data could help improve both operations and policies for municipal governments.
For example, one of the most frustrating aspects of municipal management is trying to determine how to deploy limited resources — police officers, firefighters and public works employee who fill potholes — across a vast geographical space in response to citizen complaints and requests. Cities are constantly in reactive mode, responding to 3-1-1 and 9-1-1 calls as they come in. But with the help of scientists and statisticians to harness all that information, cities could use “big data” techniques to become more proactive, analyzing patterns, predicting needs and deploying resources in anticipation of the calls.
There’s no shortage of information — or potential, but most cities aren’t currently equipped to use their data for maximum benefit. However, with the help of universities, cities have begun to harness this data more productively.
The Research Power Behind the Cities
Across the country, we have seen cities working with universities to leverage the power of this data for a wide variety of purposes, ranging from Carnegie Mellon’s 3-1-1 predictive analytics and traffic signal synchronization for the city of Pittsburgh to Virginia Tech’s environmental data analysis in Arlington, Virginia (led by former Rice engineering dean Sallie Keller). Some 40 academic institutions belong to a national organization known as MetroLab Network, which is focused on bringing data, analytics, innovation and technology to city governments through partnerships with universities.
These partnerships are thriving right here in Texas, as well. The Rice-Houston partnership, called the “Houston Solutions Lab,” has already generated five research projects in which Rice professors are examining everything from flooding to parking to wastewater management. And in Austin, the city is installing volume count stations and travel time sensors in significant pedestrian locations, then partnering with UT Austin’s Center for Transportation Research and Texas Advanced Computing Center to create a secure environment for the data and engage in a wide variety of projects that will help the city improve its operations. UT San Antonio is currently negotiating with the city of San Antonio on a similar partnership.
These universities bring sophisticated research methods and capacity to bear on problems the cities simply cannot solve on their own.
Turning Data Into Insights
But using all this data requires having it in the right place and in a form that both cities and universities can use. The vast flow of data doesn’t do anybody much good if it can’t be interpreted. That’s why efforts to harness the data often involve time-consuming and expensive efforts to organize and manage the information in the first place.
In Houston, the Urban Data Platform, an effort led by Rice Professor and Kinder Fellow Kathy Ensor, represents a big step in changing that situation. The idea is to bring together hundreds of different datasets about urban Houston — demographics, housing, health, education, transportation, you name it — on the same platform so researchers and others can conduct studies across these datasets to provide new insights.
One advantage of a wide-ranging data platform like this is that it can open up “big data” for a wide variety of users — not just cities. School districts can use these platforms to predict and improve student performance, and community-oriented nonprofits can use them to conduct research that will help them build strategies and accomplish their missions.
These are just a few examples of how “big data” is being harnessed in Texas and across the country to help urban systems managers make better decisions. We’re still at the early stage, and these kinds of efforts are still the exception rather than the rule. But a decade from now, data management will be second nature, and city leaders will be able to make every decision based on concrete information.
William Fulton is Director of the Kinder Institute at Rice University in Houston. He was formerly Mayor of Ventura, California, and Director of Planning and Economic Development for the City of San Diego.