The Future of Urban Research: Three Dimensions of City Data

Rob Mitchum | Computation Institute
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Computation Institute

The future of cities doesn’t fit easily within disciplinary boundaries. Traditionally, urban research has been the domain of social scientists, while architects, urban planners, and policymakers implement academic findings into real practice. But the rising availability of city data and the computation to model and simulate the complexity of cities brings new scientists and partners into the mix, opening up new possibilities for understanding, managing and building cities.

For the AAAS 2014 session, “A New Era for Urban Research: Open Data and Big Computation,” CI Senior Fellow and Urban Center for Computation and Data director Charlie Catlett assembled an “all-star cast” of social scientists, computer scientists, and representatives from government and industry to illustrate these new partnerships. The urgency driving the presentations and discussions was the rapidly growing urbanization around the world, particularly in China, where they will need to build the equivalent of one New York City every year to house its growing urban population, Catlett said. In the face of these imposing statistics, speakers demonstrated exciting new work going on in Chicago, New York, Beijing, and Boston.

Dean Mario Small said that just collecting more and more data is not enough to understand cities and produce change. Small’s research looks at the relationship between population and organizational density -- the concentration of businesses and services in a neighborhood -- and poverty. To illustrate the need to go beyond surface statistics, Small compared two neighborhoods with similar levels of poverty: Chicago’s Woodlawn, and New York City’s Central Harlem. Looking just at the economics, a researcher might think these communities were very similar. But anyone walking around the two areas would immediately see vastly denser population and many more stores, restaurants, and gathering places in Central Harlem than in Woodlawn.

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