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Big Questions for Big Data

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Flickr: Symic
Flickr: Symic

Not long ago we had to creatively generate data to inform strategy, planning, decisions and public policy. Today we are swimming in data. It's everywhere and being created by nearly everything. From mobile phone GPS signals, video from the corner camera, electricity use, traffic counts to seemingly infinite posts on social media -- these sources and more contribute to big data. According to IBM, more than 2.5 quintillion bytes of information are generated every day. That's more than a few tweets contributing to the generation of 90 percent of the world's data being created in the last two years alone.

I had the pleasure to participate in the MIT SENSEable City Laboratory's UrbanCode Symposium. The august group included representatives from research, industry, governments in Asia, Europe and North and South America, the World Bank, and many others from around the globe exploring the multiple dimensions and possibilities of big urban data to provide insights (and solutions) to "wicked urban problems."

While all participants agreed that big data can and will be a big help in addressing the world's urban challenges, there was also the reluctant realization that big data raises big questions. Students of public policy are not often fluent in technology but they do know that all new technologies and solutions create new problems. Here are just a few that were identified during the symposium:

Crowded Agendas - Government has limited agenda space, that is the number of issues that policymakers can meaningfully address at any one time. Big data will clearly identify many gaps in existing policies and programs, but it will also identify issues not yet on the agenda and mobilize latent interests that had yet to organize and demand attention. While it is ultimately "good" to address these "silent" gaps, will big data possibly overload the very policymaking process we had hoped to make better with more information?

Organizational Capacity - Data are resources, but they are not information. Translating data into information and knowledge takes organizational capacity that does not exist in most of the world's urban centers, e.g., a new generation of "data professionals," processes and tools to gather, digest and transform big data into information that can be understood and used to make mundane urban operations such as ensuring that the traffic signals are working to making major investment decisions to determine whether a new rail systems should be built.

Objective Data, Subjective Analysis - Data are objective; however, how those data are weighted and how the analysis is used is not. Better information does not relieve the public or decision makers of making value judgments on any number of urgent problems facing today's cities. Consider just a few. How much are we willing to pay for what level of environmental quality? How safe is safe enough? How clean is clean enough? At what point has housing equity been reached? Is an average delay of three minutes in transit operations acceptable but five minutes throws up a red flag on the big data dashboard?

Public Trust - If your phone, along with everyone else's, provides useful GPS data to better understand transportation behavior within the city -- is that your data? Where does it go, who owns it and who is responsible to ensure that your "data of one" remains private? Will your data ever be sold? Will it ever be used to detect illegal or undesirable behaviors? Given the worldwide decline in public trust in public and private institutions the case for unfettered personal data sharing on the basis of regional economics or public good alone may not go far.

Can Big Data Make Us Happy? - Big data is often discussed in the context of helping public and private organizations make better decisions. But, decisions about what? Will big data simply make what cities do today more efficient, effective and environmentally sustainable? Yes, but is that enough?

Big data offers big opportunities to innovate and make our cities not just smarter but better for residents and visitors. Buses that run on time, efficient energy use, improved trash removal, balanced land-use are all laudable and important goals, but big data can do so much more.

Can we envision big data as a way to rethink how the city can promote comprehensive health, happiness and general population well-being? What will the new measures be for data that indicate quality of life? How will those data be used to inspire new policies and programs not just make incremental investments and improvements to what exists today?

Big data is more than an opportunity to do better. It should reset our expectations to see that great things are possible. As we develop the technical capacity to collect, organize, analyze and visualize we must make comparable investments in our institutions, civic dialogue and policy processes to adapt to this new data rich world to get the biggest bang we can from big data.

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