In 2012, New York’s then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed colleges and universities around the world submit ideas for an applied science campus which would act as an engine of discovery and experimentation around the city's resources.
Professor Constantine Kontakosta was part of the team which submitted a proposal to create the NYU Center for Urban Science and Progress.
“We were trying to leverage existing growing strengths in research and data science. The thought was to bring this data together and use it to improve city operations,” he said. “Cities are generating incredible amounts of data...and we couple that with social media data and other nontraditional data sources to better understand how a city functions; and policymakers can make decisions on how to improve quality of life.”
NYU CUSP, which opened in 2012, has become one of premier facilities specializing in “urban informatics,” a form of study utilizing data to determine how cities can become more productive, healthy and efficient. The field of study has been in its embryonic stage for years, but is growing in popularity among students, educators and higher ed institutions.
New facilities and master’s programs, including a lab at Stanford University and an MS at Northeastern University, are two institutions joining CUSP in offering postsecondary educational opportunities in the field. Kontakosta said he believed that increased interest among students was largely the reason there was a boost in attention.
“We’re seeing interest from city governments, from the private sector and from students themselves,” he said. “From the student’s side, a bulk of students are coming in very technically capable with a quantitative basis, but want to have meaning in the work that they do. They want to know how this data can be used to solve pressing problems.”
The Urban Informatics Lab at Stanford was started by Rishee Jain, an assistant professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering at the university and the director of the lab. Approximately a year ago, Jain suggested the notion of a lab specializing in urban informatics to Stanford. Much of Jain’s research specializes in energy efficient buildings, and said urban informatics offered higher ed institutions an opportunity to forge new partnerships.
“We have a long history of doing strong academic/industrial collaborations, but what is relatively new is a civic/academic partnership. How do you work with a city agency or government to improve the city?” Jain said about his team’s work. “The end users of some of these research we produce will be the cities themselves.”
Supporters like Jain and Kontakosta say such research is more pertinent than ever, as the world becomes increasingly urbanized; already, more than half of the world’s population live in cities. Municipalities collect incredible amounts of data, often without any immediate usage, which through urban informatics can glean possible solutions to chronic urban issues.
Kontakosta suggested that data could help alleviate traffic concerns, or help cities in constructing more energy-efficient buildings. Although Kontakosta noted that silos between city agencies could be difficult to overcome in the procurement and study of data, he was encouraged by the fact that urban informatics was also seeing interest as a viable field of study by federal agencies.
“The field as a whole is very much exploratory, in its pilot phase. There’s a lot of potential in what we can do, but with silos and getting large scale data funding...we’re doing ad hoc research,” he said. “I think this is going to coalesce into a comprehensive and coherent research field, which will allow professors to scale some of these research projects.”
Higher ed institutions can be strong beds for urban informatics innovation; many are located in cities or urban environments that can become a partner in attempts to harness datasets collected by municipalities for public benefit. Jain said Stanford’s lab was working with Palo Alto on better understanding the takeaways from data regarding energy usage in buildings.
Such partnerships are common in a variety of fields, including recent news that tech professors and students in the Pittsburgh area often collaborate with the city, using it as a field for research (one professor took over ten stoplights as part of a research project, according to the New York Times). The rise in interest of such programs is also reverberating in the corporate world, according to Kontakosta; companies like Google and Siemen’s are increasingly seeking potential applicants with these kinds of skills, he said.
For Jain, he said universities interested in establishing partnerships with municipalities based on utilizing urban informatics research should consider the ways in which a civic partnership would differ from one with industry, and he noted that much of the approach for higher ed institutions in regards to the burgeoning field would be learning through experience, particularly in how universities, industries and cities could collaborate on research projects that could offer tangible benefits.
“Everyone has their own vision, so we have to see what works and what each one gets out of this partnership,” he said.