Sim City Chronicles

Todays NY Times, an article ‘Sim City, For Real:  Measuring the Untidy Metropolis’ under the rubric of ‘Bright Ideas’ focuses on the data-driven, ‘Smart’ city – described as “the global drive to apply modern sensor, computing, and data-sifting technologies to urban environments…”   The main focus is the NYU Center for Urban Science and Progress.

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The overall thesis, which is not a new idea, is that through big data (i.e. IBM, Cisco, etc.) we can employ digital data to understand the city in new ways.  The concept of a new digital urban ‘observatory’ allows us to tap into the systems of cities in ways never before – at least in terms of the “raw material for modeling outcomes… [which] can guide policy or inform citizens”.

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The interdisciplinary teams investigate urban phenomena in new ways, including noise, traffic, service provision, or energy efficiency, to name a few.  Using New York as a ‘living laboratory’ – and this is facilitated by an agreement between the local government to share information – yielding a new era of transparency.

I’m not convinced that technology and data – and the Sim City metaphor – is a complete picture of the overall solutions.  The sophistication of algorithms and the immensity of data continues to increase, but the ability to interpret this information is inevitably based on the very irregular and difficult to predict variability of humans.  As IBM director of smarter cities Jurij R. Paraszczak notes:

“People living in cities.  So Much of the equation is not just the data but how you encourage people to change their behavior.”

So more data is great.  It’s what we do with it that matters.

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