Let's Analyze Data to Build Better Cities

07/11/2012 07:28 am ET | Updated Oct 18, 2013

The world is entering the age of "Big Data."

The amount of data that we can gather is dizzying. The volume is coming from everywhere like no other time: whether it's Facebook updates or sensors on highway signs or even robots floating within the depths of the ocean. The increasing power of our computers and analytics to sift through these streams of information is ushering in new opportunities for innovation.

These advances make it possible for us to collect so much more data and tease out insights that escaped us before so that we can manage the world in more sustainable, efficient and smarter ways.

Cities, especially, will be big winners in this new age. The reason why is simple: Cities are chock full of complex, profoundly revealing bits of data just waiting to be tapped.

In fact, cities are basically living organisms. All the complex systems that make them run or that affect them, whether it's transportation, water, electricity, or even weather, are intricately connected. Together, these systems determine how livable -- or not -- a city is.

Gathered in real time, connected together, and analyzed, the data from these systems can give a picture of the health of a city that was never possible before. Those insights can be used to improve the daily lives of everyone within that city.

Seem farfetched? Or out of reach of today's budget-strapped communities? Actually, cities around the world are starting to roll out the kinds of information command centers that can pull together and make sense of the data waiting within their municipal systems, transforming what was once just a vision into reality.

In Florida, for example, fans who attend Miami Dolphins football games and other events at the Sun Life Stadium will find more organized traffic, better services and an improved experience thanks to on-the-spot data analysis.

Facing an aging infrastructure and customer complaints, the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (DC Water) now uses analytics to help predict how water is being used and how problems can be avoided, based upon such factors as weather and historical events.

Other cities are deploying centralized crime control centers, not just to react more quickly to public safety issues, but to predict where problems could occur, driving down crime and creating more inviting, livable communities.

These are not just issues in the U.S. Last week, leaders from around the world gathered in Singapore to discuss how to build "Livable and Sustainable Cities" at the World Cities Summit 2012.

Information, after all, is power. Data is transformative when enough of it is collected and analyzed in ways that it provides unexpected perspectives on the world, ones that can spur action.

Imagine improving traffic without building new roads, lowering crime with existing resources or developing health information networks where any hospital has your up-to-date medical history? That's today's opportunity. And it's increasingly possible because the different technologies needed to make sense of Big Data -- the analytics, computing power, networks, software -- are becoming available and affordable.

Technology, though, is never transformative on its own. Big Data is powerful. But it takes the know-how of city officials to figure out how to unleash its potential. Only civic leaders understand the challenges and opportunities facing their communities. Now they can use technology to make their cities better and focus on tackling the unique challenges their cities face.

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