Big Data, small actions

I recently participated in the second of two National Science Foundation workshops on Big Data and Urban Informatics, hosted in the great city of Chicago by our friends in the Urban Planning and Policy program at University of Illinois – Chicago.  The future is here, folks.  The things we can do now with respect to data and simulations is simply gobsmacking.  I’ve been in the transportation and urban science business for roughly 25 years.  I never dreamed we would come so far so quickly.  This is truly a revolution.

Here are only a few highlights, based on my tweets (@MobileHarv)

  • Small data -> big models. Big Data -> small models (workshop on Big Data and Urban Informatics, UI-Chicago)
  •  Carlo Ratti keynote – driverless city will require 80% less automobile infrastructure for the same mobility. Yes, please! #UrbanBigData
  • Dutta & Anderson (Columbia U) – electric taxi fleet through vehicle to vehicle wireless charging – reducing stops to charge  #UrbanBigData
  • Adam Davidson (CUNY): Women use NYC bikeshare less but pay more and do more reverse trips, supporting and rebalancing system #UrbanBigData

What ties all of this together is the ability collect, store and process georeferenced and moving objects data, leading to new GIScience, simulation and visualization techniques.  We can now look at all of the bikeshare data or simulate the behavior of all cars, taxis and people in a city, leading to new insights and discoveries.

But now what?  How do we translate these Urban Big Data and Grand Urban Simulations into actionable knowledge quickly enough to make a difference in an increasingly speedy world?  This is a question I raised at the recent (and excellent) Big Data Future conference at The OSU.  Its a trickier question than it seems – we now understand that human systems such as cities and transportation are becoming more complex (in the formal sense) as the world becomes more crowded and connected. How do we manage systems that cannot be predicted in principle, even with all of the data and computation in the universe?

We can understand and manage complex human systems, but it requires humility: a recognition that societies and cities cannot be engineered like machines; they must be cultivated and shaped like gardens.  Big plans are fine for perspective, but small actions, self-organization and cooperation are how we translate Big Urban Data into policy and actions.

In her opening keynote, Vonu Thakuriah suggested: Big Data -> small models.  My suggestion: Big Data -> small models -> small actions.

More later – I have a couple of papers coming out soon on these topics.  This was just a teaser.


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