Cities and Big Data: Opening panel of the Urban Code Conference at MIT

Cities and Big Data: Opening panel of the Urban Code Conference at MIT

Carlo Ratti, Director of the Senseable City Lab introduces the conference. This is the annual Senseable Cities conference run in partnership with the Economist magazine.

During the Urban Code conference, panelists and attendees will address how big urban data is impacting cities, urban systems and urban communities. You can monitor the twitter conversation at #urbancode.

Tonight's opening panel "On Topic" there will be five speakers. Each will do a 5-minute pecha kucha-style presentation and then we'll break for more in-depth conversation. The panelists in speaking order are:

1) Saskia Sassen, Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology and Co-chair, The Committee on Global Thought, Columbia University
2) Marko Bressen, Open Platforms Director, BBVA
3) Ede Jorge Ijjász Vásquez, Director for Sustainable Development of the Latin America and Caribbean Region,
World Bank
4) Mitchell Weiss, Chief of Staff, City of Boston
5) Alan Davidson, Visiting Scholar in the Engineering Systems Division, MIT, former Director of Public Policy for Google

Each speaker will do a five-minute pecha kucha and then we'll break for more in-depth discussion with Jan Piotrowski, the Online Science Editor of the Economist.

Saskia Sassen - Urban Stories: Toward a Hermeneutics of Big Data...or...The City Talks Back
Hermeneutics is a big word. You can think of this presentation as "The City Talks Back". The challenge is how we urbanize big data? We already have sensors everywhere that produce data sets. Mostly they are about consumers and mostly geared towards businesses. The other major actor is the government.

But what would it mean to urbanize big data? Not just to gather data about consumers but gathering stories and context.

The distances between big data as a type of data is not enough. "Urban Code" gives us a link, a kind of application to the city. It's a certain kind of code. Sassen is intrigued by the notion of urban code or code that urbanizes.

Hermeneutics of Big Data
Sassen is seeking to detect the urban side. This is NOT epitomized by security and surveillance regimes as they currently exist in large cities like London, New York, etc. These are NOT urbanized data sets.

What makes data "urban"? What makes data urban is the fact that the multitude in urban space re-codes those machines made for destruction, it hacks the tank and robs it of its destructive capacity. Adding this bit of knowledge/information helps to urbanize this data set, to put it into context.

Urban Residents talk back
Residents and citizens are not just bits and bytes for data. They are actors, gatherers, aggregators in their own right. How can we connect urbanized big data to the project of "open-source urbanism"?

Intelligent cities as we have been discussing them for the past ten years risk becoming obsolete. They are excessively closed systems. This is the challenge of urbanizing technology. Urbanizing data means the computer gathers something but then there is another task. The logic of the user differs significantly from the logic of the engineer.

City as Hacker
The city as a hacker of spaces, of technologies, of individual's self-interest, of excessively rigid technological systems. What you put in a city, the city will digest and recombine in new ways.

Marco Bressan - Big Data & Externalities
The promise of a data driven society is huge. As inspiring as they are, the business models behind this is challenging. He wants to offer a framework to help us think about how businesses can make sense in this area, particularly in relationship to externalities.

Definition: An externality is an effect a decision or action has on a third party, for example pollution. Many open data initiatives create positive externalities.

With big data we have amplified externalities. We need to care deeply about externalities. We are increasingly delegating our decisions - e.g. corporate outsourcing, algorithmic trading. And our decisions have broad impact - e.g. globalization and urbanization. We cannot call a city "smart" if it cannot anticipate the impact on society of the actions that happen every day. For a city for be fair and sustainable it needs to understand and deal with externalities. How? There are three ways:

- Regulations like carbon taxes
- Public Awareness like smoking messages on cigarette packs
- Have the parties involved in the decisions to take the externality into account in their transaction. This is called internalizing externalities. But this is not straightforward. Who should pay how much to how? Who owns the cost & the benefit?

Shows the above animation from Sensable City Lab & BBVA which maps a large data set of financial transactions that occurred on Easter weekend in 2012 (which sure does have strange music - blogger's note).

Using data layers we can quantify these transactions. This provides a unique, unprecedented environment for internalizing externalities, both positive and negative.

For example, he shows a graphic of a large shop which shares its customers with many stores around it. In this case, a smaller store might pay to be closer to the large store. Another example, Los Angeles & San Francisco decided to do pricing experiments with parking where prices to park varied by time of day and parking demand. Just several years ago we did not have the technology to do this. Now we see how the data layer is providing the environment for internalizing these kinds of externalities.

His call to action is to business and researchers of big urban data - he would like people to take a step back from segmenting, pricing and dicing data for marketing and advertising and take a deeper look into the hidden economics that the data is starting to unravel.

Ede Jorge Ijjász Vásquez - Innovation in Developing Nations
Ijjász starts with three stories. He was in Guatemala City last week in a dangerous part of town. The mayor gets out of the cars and starts talking with people even though they are surrounded by protective cars. He told a story about how instead of hiring more police to fight crime (which the city didn't have funds for), he built a platform to connect citizens, police and urban administrators. This platform now gathers information about crime and also information about broken streetlights and other civic concerns. If they can do this in Guatemala, they can do this in other countries.

His next example is from Beijing where people released an online map of where the dirty versus clean bathrooms were. When people started hearing where the clean bathrooms were, they would automatically shop in those areas versus those with dirty bathrooms. So the stores nearby the bathrooms actually started taking responsibility for the dirty bathrooms and improving their status.

At his organization, the World Bank, they are working on problems like urban transport, disaster management, climate balance, poverty and job creation in developing nations. How do you get urban governments to open up and receive feedback? For example, Lima, Peru, received 3000 complaints for the first project where they solicited participatory feedback. They were very apprehensive about releasing the results but the World Bank encouraged them to do so.

Four words of caution: Political will and political silos. When people see data in different ways, this can effect change.

Mitchell Weiss - Use big urban data for participation problems, not efficiency problems
Mayor Menino has met 57% of the people that live in the City of Boston which helps explain the fact that he has been mayor for such a long time. His administration is based on relationships and people.

Weiss shows a picture of a line of voters and discusses voter turnout. The average turnout in mayoral election is 27%. This is too low.

The biggest problems we face in cities today are not efficiency problems but participation problems. Big urban data has to be about transforming democracy and participation. It can't just be about transforming operations and transforming the analysis. For example, the biggest budget problem we face in cities is pension liabilities. That's not an operational problem, that's a decision-making problem, a participation problem. In the City of Boston we spend more on health care for our city employees than we do on parks or infrastructure. That's a participation thing. That's a conversation that needs to be had.

The last big data effort in big urban data at the city scale was 311 and CityStat. These were really important steps in operating city governments more efficiently. What they did not do is solve these democracy issues. City governments are more efficient and they still face these major philosophical, existential problems.

He has been instrumental at the Mayor's office of New Urban Mechanics. As cities look to take up big data, there are things to avoid and things to embrace. He is wary of big systems, big technology and big companies. Open innovation and rapid innovation are what the City of Boston is looking for now. Secondly, we should hire entrepreneurs into cities who want to take data and engage with their neighbors around it. We should prioritize entrepreneurship and relationships over analysis.

The City of Boston has led the way. CitizensConnect was the country's first mobile open 311 app which incorporated social media. And StreetBump is the app on your iPhone that senses potholes when you drive around the city and transmits that data to the city.

It strikes him as odd at a time when companies are spending so much money trying to engage customers that cities would become more technical and less engaging to their citizens. Cities are the ones that invented community. Cities invented town hall meetings. If there's one thing we can learn from private sector it's something they learned from cities: People matter, relationships matter. These are the important things.

Alan Davidson - Policy & Big Data
He is going to discuss the value of data, the policy benefits and risks, and design responses.

At Google they say "In God we Trust, everyone else must bring data". There is a vast amount of capital and industry to exploit and manage large data sets and abilities to use machine learning to harvest that data. He shows several examples of how this is happening, for example Google FluTrends. Another example is crowdsourcing. Google's map cars couldn't reach everywhere so Google used participatory mapping to allow people to build their own maps to incorporate into Google. Finally, there is the example of the autonomous vehicles that Google is building.

He cites an important study from the McKinsey GLobal Institute, Big Data: The next frontier for innovation, competition and productivity. This outlines some of the business opportunities of big data.

Policymakers in Washington get it. They are interested in big data. But the downsides are privacy concerns, the granular information about individuals that is persistant for much longer intervals. Data security and intellectual property are other concerns. How can we think about these policy issues early in the design process? If so, you can mitigate a lot of these concerns. For example, Google's face-blurring technology mitigates (doesn't solve) some of the privacy concerns around Street View.

Some of the important questions are:

What are fair information practices?
How can we include privacy by design?
Do we need new regulations?
How can we empower individuals?

Panel Discussion
Jan Piotrowski, Online Science Editor of the Economist is the moderator.
Tomorrow we'll be talking about technical challenges of big data, but today perhaps we can wonder about some of the institutional challenges to making this happen. The first question is how do you build the structures of trust to enable all of this to take off?

Sassen: It has to come through distributive processes. Open source urbanism is not just in a narrow software sense. In our democracies we have become consumers of our citizenship. Some of this big data is coming from various angles. How do we urbanize technology? What about this notion of the City talking back? We have forgotten to listen to the speech act of the city but if we begin to do that we may learn a great deal. There are a bunch of issues that go beneath the radar. We think of cities from the top-down.

Piotrowski: To Weiss - do you believe Big Data will influence how local government is structured?

Weiss: Opportunity for government to restructure around citizen engaging, peer-producing kinds of things. The New Office of Urban Mechanics has changed many things about local governance. Government could also restructure in a very different way based on other trends - become more autocratic, more technocratic, for example. Do we want to ask citizens to be peer-producers or have them do less and less? We want it to be the former.

Piotrowski: to Ijjász - How does this work in the developing world?

Ijjász: We are seeing processes from the mayor's office down and from the communities up. Many utilities are opening up citizen feedback offices, for example. Two barriers we see - 1) fear of openness and transparency. These are not mechanisms of transparency that they are familiar with and 2) corruption - they are afraid that transparency will expose corruption.

Piotrowski: Many of these platforms work astonishingly well in places that are not well-known for their democracy, for example Singapore. Alan mentioned the Big Brother element of Big Data. Will Big Data work most effectively in places that are more autocratic?

Davidson: It's not inevitable. For example, Google FluTrends' data is anonymised and the data is hard to track back to individuals. We are going to have to grapple with this - the trend is towards using the data but there's a toolkit we can place against these deployments.

Piotrowski: All these sensors have to be deployed, people use their mobile phones, the data needs to be crunched. How do you pay for all this? Is it private, is it government, is it both?

Bressen: It's typically paid for by the people whom the data benefits. The older players are getting into the game and considering whether or not to expose data, to capture value from that or their old business. Many of these companies are tied to the older rules of the game - for example banks or telecommunications. They are deeply bound to regulations and doing business in a certain way. They have awareness of many of these constraints.

Weiss: StreetBump is free to any other city that wants to use it. We wanted that to be part of our policy. You can download the app for free. It goes to show the power of changing the structures. So instead of going to IBM, we did it ourselves with a community partner. Cities can take a leadership approach and say they don't want to just be sold to. They can set an example. We don't have to buy into the old model that it will be extremely costly or the new old model that it will be cheap and there will be a lot of advertising. There are other ways.

Davidson: The example of StreetBump is tremendous. GoogleTrends for example opens up information about mass transit in cities that can be placed in Google maps. The idea of opening the code up to everyone like Code for America, for example.

Sassen: The idea of cities and citizens as makers is a wonderful one.

Piotrowski: What about compensating them for their labor?

Sassen: No, I'm not thinking about that. I think it's about constituting the civic sphere. You need cities to put in some resources. There are other modes, distributed modes of constituting the public.

Ijjász: Even if it costs money the opportunities are tremendous. The value there in bringing efficiency to many developing countries is large. The value proposition there is so big that the trick is how to move fast and keep an open process.

Piotrowski: Most of us here probably have smart phones here which are constantly spewing out data which is useful to someone. They are using that for profit. Is there a case where compensating people might bring more people on board?

Weiss: In the Mayor's office we think no. We think that citizenship is one of those things that the more you charge for it the less value you get. We are now developing something called "StreetCred" which is a reputation system in which you generate social capital.

Sassen: The city is a natural for that. You do the pothole bit...

Weiss: It's not just a 'pothole bit', it's the coolest thing in the world - do you want to see it?

Sassen: Sorry I'm just saying that it feels very natural that you would start with this trajectory and then lead to other forms of citizen participation.

Davidson: On the question of whether we should be paying people - I think it's too early to tell. People in some ways are being compensated. They get access to incredible services like search engines, for example. Maybe there will be a moment where we want to pay but we're not there yet.

Bressen: And consumers and citizens may become more demanding as they understand where their data is going. Perhaps they start asking for a slice of that. We are just at the beginning for people to start formulating what their rights might be.

Piotrowski: Marco mentioned externalities. We have mostly been speaking of positive externalities. Do others have ideas of negative externalities for others living outside of cities? Cities are growing right now at the rate of 195,000 people a day. What about rural areas? Is this creating a new divide between cities and non-cities?

Sassen: We can think about bridging. For example, Mayan weaving women. There are networks of women weavers. And then there are people who have become middlemen who have matched them with a market. But this makes an enormous difference. In the city there are all these deborderings. In the rural areas, there are not these examples of decentering. The rural is a different space.

Ijjász: I see a lot more innovation in rural areas out of desperation. They don't have a lot of services so they develop microbanking. In China, the meteorological agency was developing applications for farmers so that they would come buy mobile subscriptions.

Piotrowski: Will these rural innovators bring their innovations to cities?

Ijjász: As you have more rural migration, the trend we see is that people are more connected. They will become more sophisticated.

Weiss: The Digital Divide we worry about in Boston is still an intra-city gap. We get worried when a city's main thing is an "app competition" because those things can veer towards the young, cute and yuppy. We think there's a robust role for city government to make sure innovation makes its way to underserved communities. For example, the office of New Urban Mechanics partnered with the Dudley Square Neighborhood Association. We're trying to make sure that gap doesn't happen as we move towards mobility and data.

Piotrowski: The last question I wanted to ask the panel is whether you sense a danger that people become too reliant on these new developments.

Sassen: There is an interesting thing we have all experienced- for example, we don't have to remember phone numbers. I am against phones. I think they are intrusive whether they are mobile or not. The bricoleur spirit is activated by these technologies. How do you use it? You can deploy them in many ways. They eliminate certain capabilities but they open up whole new domains.

Piotrowski: In developing world where electricity patchy - these systems can just break down. What's the effect of that?

Ijjász: That's a new business opportunity. When technologies are being used for disaster preparedness, the technology is an important part but this is just an aspect of other embedded systems of community support. It used to rely on TV and radio, the systems being built because of this connectivity increases resilience of these communities to deal with disasters.

Bressen: I hate GPS because I get lost when I use GPS. So I don't use it anymore because I lose my orientation when I use it. I think what's interesting is how children are using these technologies and what they do with it. I have three children and they mostly use it to learn. It is healthy to have "disintoxication sessions" - to have society every now and then to take a week off the grid.

Piotrowski: Alan, is there a role for businesses and institutions to teach people about living without technologies?

Davidson: I do worry about my kids' addiction to screens. One thing about the danger of reliance - there will be new points of failure in all of this. What happens if there is no GPS? What goes down? Cities and businesses need to think about resilience. The other question is about obsolescence. We should be building things the way that we want them to last, the way we want our cities to last.

Weiss: We've been talking about infrastructural overreliance and also cultural overreliance. Mayor Menino forbids the use of voicemail in city hall. He didn't want people to leave messages but to actually talk to people. At the time people called him a Luddite but it has actually proved to be very effective in practice.