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Michael writes on emerging markets, architecture and engineering. He has served as a correspondent in Tokyo, London and Johannesburg and has written for Reuters, the Financial Times, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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Big data and the quantified city: How data links transport planning with cafes

Published 13 June 2013 00:45, Updated 13 June 2013 15:20

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Big data and the quantified city: How data links transport planning with cafes

An image showing data visualisation of people movement across Copenhagen. Colours indicate most and less traversed paths using data from Twitter and Foursquare.

Chris Luebkeman is a doctor. He’s an engineer rather than a medical doctor but Arup’s chief crystal ball-gazer (or director for global foresight and innovation, as they call him at the engineering firm) outlines a future of transport and urban movement planning that sounds more like a job for a medico than a pen-in-top-pocket nerd.

The key is data. The vast quantity of information individuals generate – when collated and turned into useable forms – can give not just engineers, but any business seeking to meet growing demands of a society, be it public transport or healthcare, the ability to take a bird’s-eye view and look at any issue as a system, as the aggregate of a vast number of individual movements.

“I think of the city as a body, like a human,” Luebkeman tells BRW during a trip to Melbourne. “Anything we do with the quantified self, there’s a parallel in the quantified city. The opportunities are the same. It’s like having doctors for cities.”

The city, at the end of the day, is a means to allow individuals to gather to thrive, and gen-Xers and gen-Yers have a very different interaction with the city.

In this case, the doctors are already using data. Kaiser Permanente, a California-based healthcare fund, has created an app that allows an individual to compare characteristics such as their cholesterol or heart-rate with the aggregate data of a selected peer group, allowing that person – or their doctor – to look for early warnings of conditions such as heart disease or stroke and make changes to behaviour or lifestyle accordingly.

Movement apps

Turning an issue such as preventative healthcare into a social network activity (or tracking individuals’ movements to draw a broad picture of how the community moves at different times) is a leap beyond privacy bounds that may draw resistance from some. For others, it is an already accepted practice, and Luebkeman, who describes himself as a “fiftysomething”, says the willingness to share information in this way is something that differentiates the baby boomers from generations X and Y.

“We haven’t even talked about generational differences, between the boomers and the gen X-ers and the gen Y-ers and how they prefer to interact with the city and how they prefer to interact with each other,” he says. “Because the city, at the end of the day, is a means to allow individuals to gather to thrive. And gen-Xers and gen-Yers have a very different interaction with the city. They, as digital natives, expect this kind of quantified city. They expect that. But for me, it’s always a discovery.”

Through widely used apps such as Foursquare and Twitter people are already allowing their movements to be tracked. RMIT University’s Flora Salim was part of a project that used data from these two apps to model movement of people through the Danish capital Copenhagen in 2011. Visualising that data on a map with movements and volumes represented by different colours allowed people to draw new streets on the map and see what affect that had on pedestrian flow.

Route planning

Melbourne-based Salim and colleagues are now doing similar work at home. They have started a pilot project with Victoria’s Mornington Shire which, using an app that tracks drivers’ movements via their phones’ GPS, can give all users better information about roads and road conditions.

“Can we provide more useful applications on top of Google Maps, for example, not just for showing the fastest route, but giving users a few options such as the safer route, or the more economical route to take?” she asks.

In the Facebook age, Salim says, people are happy to supply their data in exchange for a tangible benefit.

“People are willing to share,” she says. “If these apps bring more value by giving more information, they can have more crowd-based intelligence.

For example, if everyone keeps saying that part of the road has big pothole, and is very run-down, if you get that kind of information shared by 90 out of 100 users, then it’s a good sign you have to avoid that route.”

Another project that Salim and colleagues are starting next month will combine live information from public transport providers, live weather information and historic data that will allow users – via an app – to plan their route and choose the mode of transport that’s best in the circumstances. It could even help with the shopping.

“The app will know your train is delayed and that you have to, for example, buy some milk,” she says. “It will know from the to-do list in your phone and might suggest you can go to the milk bar five minutes down the road, come back and still get the train.”

At the other end of the chain from individuals, of course, are the benefits this data visualisation has for people such as urban designers and planners, who can use it to explore patterns of movement of people before designing a project in a particular area. It will also show other aspects of behaviour, such as how willing people are to walk between stops while they are waiting for a train. For a business wanting to know how far they can afford to situate a planned milk bar from a station, such data is invaluable.

Working with business

The three-year project – which goes by the clunky name of Integrated and Real-time Passenger Travel and Public Transport Service Information System – is open to collaborating with businesses, particularly consumer-oriented ones that can provide real-time data, or funding, Salim says.

“We can work with all kinds of businesses that will benefit from analysis of real-time data from the city,” she says.

In the Facebook age, having access to information about consumer habits is crucial to permitting an app to be a conduit for advertising as well. User identity is protected by the app, but basic demographic information (such as age group, gender and movement habits) will permit the creation of a user profile that can be valuable to businesses – such as cafes near a train station.

“There are coffee drinkers,” Salim says. “In the event of a train breakdown, they won’t mind getting another cup of coffee! There can be advantages to those particular user-groups facing train breakdowns.”

From transport and urban planners to cafe owners, a better “quantitative life” – as Luebkeman puts it – will give opportunities to see things that affect people every day in ways they currently don’t realise.

“Therefore, businesses that get it, that are able to take advantage of that, will have better insights into the way in which we are living, into our patterns of living, to be able to do something about that,” he says.

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