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Over the last few weeks, numerous pieces on “big data” have suddenly appeared on our feeds. The NYTimes tells the story of how a team of analysts from the City of New York combed through data on restaurant certifications, set them against the location of sewer drains, and short-listed, with 95% accuracy, restaurants likely to dump leftover grease on the city’s pipes. The latest issue of CityScapes, a forward-looking urbanism magazine published by the African Centre for Cities, devoted its main feature to the rise of the “technocity,” highlighting Rio de Janeiro’s deployment of information technologies to guide ambitious interventions in housing and security, not always with desirable results. Recent books like Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think show cautious optimism. The authors, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier, argue that, for all its promise, “big data” is a helpful resource meant to inform but never to replace human intuition.

1 Urbanlaunchpad Dhaka

Bus speed and congestion map developed with smartphones in Dhaka, Bangladesh Source: http://www.urbanlaunchpad.org/

Broadly speaking, “big data” refers to two recent phenomena. First, in the last decade, the proliferation of digital technologies has allowed to us to rapidly produce and store astonishing amounts and variety of data—not just numbers on spreadsheets, but also videos, internet queries, traffic patterns, and even the steps you take at a conference. Second, we now have powerful analytical tools capable of combing through, and identifying patterns and correlations within, these data sets. Indeed, as Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier point out, we have moved beyond the simple digitalization of analog information toward the quantification or “datafication” of everyday life.

2 Google sensor

Google environmental sensors track noise, temperature, and foot traffic during its 2013 I/O. Source: news.cnet.com

What good does big data bring to our cities? Today, transportation authorities in Boston collect data from drivers’ smartphones to detect and fix potholes. Authorities in Rio de Janeiro, through a centralized security system, can see if an obstacle is blocking traffic, find a nearby local municipal guard, and call her to help clear the road. Following the 2010 earthquake that destroyed much of Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince, researchers used cell phone signals to track displacement and direct health agencies to areas that required assistance. Overall, big data allows municipalities to identify a change in behavioral patterns—what the UN’s Global Pulse calls “digital smoke signals”—and provide an early policy response and find ways to improve service delivery. This is how “big data” is now inexorably linked to the realization of the smart city.

3 Flowminder haiti displacement

Movement of cellphone SIM cards in the months following the 2010 Port-au-Prince earthquake. Source: http://www.flowminder.org/

At the Emerging and Sustainable Cities Initiative (ESCI), we use a similar approach in cities in Latin America and the Caribbean; we gather indicators on quality of urban life from numerous agencies and databases and set them against specific neighborhoods, thus providing a previously undetected visual and spatial representation of inequality. (We are currently exploring ways to analyze telecommunications data to inform our analyses throughout the region.) There are tremendous opportunities for international development; UN Global Pulse reports that internet traffic is expected to increase by more than 50% in Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa, and that 80% of all mobile phones in use in 2010 were in the developing world.These figures do not even consider the wealth of information within municipal agencies, which are heeding the call for “open data” and slowly making their information available to the public.

4 Centro de operacoes Rio

Eduardo Paes, Rio de Janeiro’s Mayor, launches the city’s Operations Center (2010). Source: www.rio.rj.gov.br

But users beware: big data is not a technological solution in and of itself, and it may even obfuscate pressing urban problems. When companies and governments track citizens’ use of public buses in order to redesign routes and decrease travel time for passengers, they may be overlooking the existence of poverty clusters in the city’s periphery. While useful, this type of analysis sacrifices policy relevance for analytic novelty—it identifies an innovative use for data and only then finds a problem to solve. Big data as a technocratic approach to governance is redolent of a long tradition that sees the city as a perfectly rational planned entity, with measurable problems and silver bullet solutions. Enthusiasm for big data in fast-growing cities in our region must come hand-in-hand with a political awareness of citizen voices and needs, people who are not just data-generators or smart phone users, but the actual agents of urban development.

Do you know of “big data” projects going on in your city? Can you think of a problem in your neighborhood that can be addressed through it? Let us know on the comments section or via twitter (#bigdatacities). We will collect this information on a future post.