How Far Can Big Data Take Us Towards Understanding Cities?

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organized by Geoffrey West (Santa Fe Institute), Luis Bettencourt (Santa Fe Institute), and Jose Lobo (Arizona State University)


"Big Data" has by now become a ubiquitous meme and a focus of hope for revolutionary new science, technology and policy. The data comes from everywhere: official statistics, sensors used to gather information about energy use in buildings, posts to social media sites, terms searched online, purchase transaction records, cell phone GPS signals, automobile and pedestrian mobility patterns, to name a few. When coupled with fast increasing computational power, Big Data promises to make it possible to measure, react to, and predict human behavior rapidly and with great fidelity. Urban planning and administration are fertile domains for the promise of Big Data. No doubt Big Data can facilitate the efficient management of cities and make urban administrations more responsive to citizens. But is this enough in an age of unprecedented urbanization? To what extent can Big Data help to address the mundane problems of service management or the profound challenges of human development, all of which play out today in cities worldwide? Can Big Data help reveal fundamental principles of urban life and lead to an integrated understanding of their dynamics, organization and growth? How much data, and of what kind, do we need in order to address the challenges brought about by unprecedented urbanization? Is a "science of cities" largely irrelevant in the face of Big Data? This workshop—a continuation of the dialogue on the development of a "science of cities" which has proceeded through a series of international meetings held over the past three years—will bring together leading researchers, from a variety of disciplines and with differing types of engagement with urban data, to consider the modeling possibilities and scientific limitations of Big Data in the context of studying cities. The central objective is to contribute to the lively debate on the use of data to understand and manage cities by identifying what problems can be successfully addressed with Big Data and which remain stubbornly difficult (and why). The organizers' framing perspective is that we need both scientific understanding and engineering solutions for successfully managing cities in what is fast becoming a planet of cities.