Skip to content

News & opinion

7 FEB 2019

Big data meets public space

City planners are harnessing the boom in real-time data to build better public spaces and more people-focused cities.

For architect Carlo Ratti, everything in life is about feedback loops. On your way to work, you see a traffic jam and take a different route. By the end of the month, the city transport administration has detected recurring jam patterns and decided to change the programming of the traffic lights. Over the next few years, the city’s urban planners decide the data suggests major public works are needed; a new road perhaps, or underpass.

“Planning is inherently dynamic and based on feedback loops,” says Ratti, who heads up the Senseable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “Over a century ago, the great French geographer and anarchist Élisée Reclus claimed that all planning had to start from surveying and the collection of data. The difference today is that we have access to a staggering amount of robust, real-time data.”

That real-time data, in the hands of city governments, designers and citizens, is now starting to influence the urban dynamics of cities – and, as a consequence, public space. Traditionally, the idea has been to design spaces to guide people’s behaviour in one way or another. Often, the most data an architect or urban designer could expect to get their hands on at the start of a public-realm project would be from the transport department, which could be used to understand traffic and pedestrian movement in an area. Once built, managers of those public spaces rely on observation techniques to understand how people use the space, the counting of visitors, or by conducting surveys.

Singapore is collecting and mapping real-time data ranging from taxi rides to texting patterns

A new reality is slowly coming into focus. For designers, it means being able to construct an intimate picture of a space in real time – where people stop to chat, where they get an Uber from when it rains, where they take the most selfies, or feel happy or sad. For citizens, it means having a say in that process.

This is being made possible by big-data sets, such as Transport for London’s Open Data system (which makes all Oyster travel card activity publicly available), crowdsourced projects like OpenStreetMap, and social network data – but also emerging technologies, such as sensors and video recognition, that generate “small data” at the single public square or park level, say. Making them really useful, though, means finding ways to collect, combine and visualise different data streams.

Being able to do this in real time was Ratti’s ambition with LIVE Singapore! – an experimental research project he leads as part of the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology, which is also working with the Committee on Autonomous Road Transport for Singapore. “We want to investigate how big data can be used to improve life in cities for inhabitants, as opposed to being collected for sole use by governments and private corporations,” he says. “Therefore, we thought of putting that data in the hands of those who create it.”

To date, LIVE Singapore! has collected and mapped the use of taxis on days with rainfall; texting patterns on days when there are big events on in the city, such as the Formula One grand prix; the length of time it takes for people to get home throughout the day; the relation between energy consumption and temperature around the city; and the traffic in and out of Singapore’s port and airport, which are among the busiest in the world. The data is made available on an open platform that anyone can use to create applications.

We want to investigate how big data can be used to improve life in cities for inhabitants, as opposed to being collected for use by governments and private corporations. Therefore, we thought of putting that data in the hands of those who create it.

Carlo Ratti
Senseable City Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Greater integration and openness of data sets is a step in the right direction, believes Ratti, but it also needs to happen “across the digital and physical dimensions of a city”. A few years ago, Barcelona pioneered a new position to combine its roles of city architect and chief technology officer, and Ratti cites this as a positive example of breaking down silos within city government. “Having a single, open platform for a variety of data sources can help streamline city-wide objectives by providing evidence-based policy, allowing different departments to collaborate around actual data.”

Nick Edwards, the London-based principal chair of landscape architecture at BDP, agrees and says he would welcome more public sector involvement in making more, and richer, data available. He thinks the urban design professions could be further ahead on this. “In a building, every square foot is working hard to justify itself. As cities get denser, we need to be doing the same.”

The advantage of creating and having access to open data projects such as LIVE Singapore!, says Edwards, is “it gives you a much richer definition of public space”. Even specific localised data can be revealing. For public realm work in Westminster, London, Edwards and his team used parking space sensors to gather data on how much they were actually being used by residents. “In Westminster, [decisions] are informed by the residential vote so, politically, it’s very hard to remove parking spaces. But the data showed they were under-occupied. They were being used as commuter spaces. This makes you think it might not be the best way to use the space.” 

This also highlights one of the problems with consultation: often a vocal minority emerges during the process. They may not be necessarily representative of the day-to-day experience of what might be called “the silent majority”. Real-time data can help to reveal that.

Virtual reality
Big data, AI and virtual reality are playing increasing roles in city planning and, therefore, surveying

Mass uptake of autonomous vehicles could have interesting knock-on effects for public space, such as on-street parking. The efficiency of the system could mean that only one-way traffic flows are necessary, for example, which could allow pavements to be broadened, making more room for people. “This can change your whole starting point for design,” says Edwards. “A lot of places have been designed based on traffic data and servicing a volume of cars. Pedestrian data is conspicuous by its absence. What if we could start with, ‘can that footpath have at least two people walking side by side so they [can] chat?’ Could you encourage two people to hold their meeting while they are walking? This is one of the things we need to do.”

Making the numbers work

Rick Robinson, digital property and cities leader at Arup in the UK Midlands, says available data tends to be on a project-by-project basis, and often depends on finding an operational business case to pay for gathering data in the first place – that is, how it can be commercially useful for other applications as well. He believes this will need to be widely incentivised before we see an iterative planning and replanning of the urban environment.

“One thing we do is manage complicated infrastructure projects and, in these cases, there’s immense value to having a combined database of information; not least because we’re required to give local businesses information about how they’ll be affected,” says Robinson. “But now we’re asking: ‘What can we do with it? Can we open it up and share it with the local authority?’ There are privacy and trust issues to consider, and we need to make it clear what the data is and that it’s safe to share. The primary blocker is [local authorities] understanding that data is a good thing.”

Not everyone needs persuading. The city government in Copenhagen has engaged data consultant Backscatter to analyse a backlog of anonymised emails from citizens. The data is textural – people writing in about potholes, for example – and thus difficult to work with; but, once aggregated, it is a potential gold mine of information about how people feel about the city, their concerns and how these change seasonally. It could inform how the city delivers services, including organising the public realm.

Data challenges the smart-city fixation on the public realm as physical space and objects. Space is as much about what you perceive it to be. A public square may look the same day to day, but usage data can show it’s different things to different people at different times.

Backscatter partner Anders Koed Madsen, who is also an associate professor of the Techno-Anthropology Lab (TANTLab) at the University of Aalborg in Copenhagen, says that kind of granular data allows you “to build categorisations from below”, shifting the data to tell you what a place is used for and by whom, rather than determining that in a top-down way. One example of this is the Atlas of Danish Facebook Culture, a project the lab is running to understand the dynamics of interactions on public Danish Facebook pages from 2012-18.

Working with six years of public post data on Facebook, TANTLab identified a “very large” number of what it calls “antagonists” – pairings of anonymised user IDs who, judging by their Facebook activity, are political opposites, but attended the same events. The lab looks at where the events were held, and what common traits those spaces share. “We are trying to pick out spaces in the city that are meeting grounds for political opposites,” explains Koed Madsen. “That’s a very different starting point than [traditional] demographic categories.”

“This gives clues about how to design more inclusive, fair spaces, and how to learn from areas that bring people together,” adds Jeff Risom, partner at Gehl Architects in Copenhagen, who is working with TANTLab.

For Koed Madsen, “granular” data challenges the smart-city fixation on the public realm as physical space and objects. Space is as much about what you perceive it to be. A public square may look the same day to day, but usage data can show it’s different things to different people at different times. “Your understanding of a city is built by engaging with citizens in it,” he says.

Risom believes Gehl has a way of framing the city that’s different to everyone else, called “public life outcomes”. It is a complex protocol, available for any city government or individual to download from its website, but is essentially a way of measuring how well cities are performing for people. “We’re more interested in where people are spending time than optimising pedestrian flows,” he says. “We want to design ‘sticky places’, where people slow down and spend time.”

Although Gehl uses all sorts of data in public space projects, the differentiator, says Risom, is integrating that with traditional methods such as observational ethnography, where it will train local stakeholders, mayors, landlords and volunteers to go out into the city and ask questions. “We’re still doing it, because we find it exceptionally valuable and we think it only gets stronger when used in parallel [with big data].” 

He says the key is having really specific questions: “What do you want to know, and how do you want to use this data? Less than 0.5% of the smart city data is actually ever analysed. We only want to measure stuff we know we are going to use – because that’s what’s going to make us better designers.”

  • This article was originally published in The Public Space Issue of Modus magazine (February 2019), titled Our Space.