A New Research Community for Urban Data

Apr
2013

Cities draw their strength from community and diversity, when people from different backgrounds work together in close proximity on big problems. So to unleash the potential of city data, it only makes sense to replicate that mixing bowl effect in the context of research. To formally kick off the new Urban Sciences Research Coordination Network (USRCN), 80 experts representing a broad range of disciplinary knowledge met in downtown Chicago to forge new connections and grand ideas for projects that harness data for the benefit of the modern city.

Computer scientists, mathematicians, public health and education experts, architects, urban planners, social scientists, artists and more gathered inside the ballroom of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago on February 15th with an ambitious goal: form a new interdisciplinary research community for data-driven urban science. Co-hosted by the Urban Center for Computation and Data (UrbanCCD) and the University of Chicago Urban Network and funded by the National Science Foundation, the event was meant as both social mixer and brainstorming session.

"We were asked by the NSF to create this research coordination network as a network of people, not computers," said Charlie Catlett, director of UrbanCCD. "If you can put teams together that are interdisciplinary and also cut across these experience types, then we can begin to study the city in a way that none of us could do just as individuals or small groups."

Setting the tone for the workshop was a keynote by Brett Goldstein, Chief Data Officer and Chief Information Officer in the Department of Innovation and Technology for the City of Chicago. To use data as fuel for a better city, it must first be made available, and a priority of Goldstein's first 20 months in the job was opening access to this information both inside and outside the walls of City Hall.

In his previous role doing data analytics for the Chicago Police Department, Goldstein told of repeatedly running into bureaucratic barriers when trying to acquire data collected and stored by different city departments. Thus, one of Goldstein's first priorities as chief data officer was to break down the silos between departmental data sets, enabling multi-faceted approaches to complex problems that don't neatly fall within bureaucratic boundaries. Goldstein also pushed the city towards using open-source services such as mongoDB or Hadoop whenever possible, saving the city millions of dollars in vendor contracts.

"We needed to start thinking about the city as an enterprise from the technology perspective," Goldstein said, "because then you start dealing with problems holistically and you stop having these excuses as to why you can't do things."

The new data openness has already bore fruit both externally and internally. The City of Chicago Data Portal, the biggest of its kind according to Goldstein, houses hundreds of publicly available, frequently updated datasets on everything from crime to schools to food inspections. Journalists and "urban hackers" have used the open data to produce civic-minded apps and investigative reports.

Inside City Hall, Goldstein gathered all of the data with spatial attributes – 911 calls, business licenses, CTA bus GPS information, and so forth – into a platform dubbed WindyGrid, which can "tell the story" of any address in the city, updated live every 30 seconds. The tool can be used by city officials for "situational awareness" during complex situations such as the NATO protests of last year, or for long-term tracking of important neighborhood patterns from crime to streetlight outages. Another tool developed by Goldstein and his team, known as Project Unicorn, monitors tweets to quickly detect problems with CTA service, for instance.

While the development of these tools are a bold first step, Goldstein made his pitch to the room for further developing data scientists, user-friendly computer platforms and the analytical methods to best capitalize upon these deep reservoirs of information.

"If we come together as more of a unified community, we can actually push these things ahead," Goldstein said. "We're at a point in time where we can really change things, we can move the needle and make a substantial impact, particularly in Chicago. All the pieces have come together."

The rest of the event was spent on realizing that vision, as attendees participated in breakout sessions organized around a dozen challenges ripe for data-driven solutions. Self-assembled groups that cut across disciplines and computational expertise brainstormed projects addressing topics such as energy costs and use, juvenile crime, economic shocks and integration. Each group was tasked to come up with at least one research project that could be submitted to the National Science Foundation in response to a hypothetical call for urban science proposals.

Ideas proposed during the breakout sessions ranged from advances in data and computation technology to ways of making it easier for citizens to use and contribute to data sources. In a discussion on improving school graduation rates, participants suggested expanding current data collected on Chicago Public Schools students to include after-school programs and "unstructured" information contributed by teachers via a mobile app. A group charged with developing a socio-economic vitality index for Chicago neighborhoods imagined a portal where residents could create their own index reflecting local priorities and track its progress.

As project ideas were collected and e-mail addresses swapped after the breakout sessions, the end of the event felt like the beginning of multiple collaborations. That result fulfilled the organizers' vision for the workshop: to spark new partnerships among people with different knowledge bases but a shared vision of using data to improve cities around the world.

"We're here really as a community coming together," Catlett said. "This is an opportunity to find people in other disciplines who you might want to work with, and find people with those other skill sets that you might want to work with. A success for this workshop and this project in general is that people get together and write those proposals to NSF and do projects together…irrespective of anyone from University of Chicago being involved."

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