Smart cities, part three: Taking advantage of big data – but to what effect?

June 26, 2014 0

In this conference on smart cities that I went to (see previous posts), one of the prominent topics was big data and how to take advantage of that in connection with smart cities. The presenters were mostly of academic affiliation (particularly from the MIT), and in their presentations, all more or less from the same mold, they all had the same message: We have now new technological means in our hands that enables the collection of immense quantities of data, and this can and should be used for many good things in advancing services and overall life in the urban context. And if you’ve seen any big data related presentations, you may imagine their visually impressive slideshows, where bars are jumping up and down like yoyos over a map as either phone calls, messages or data are accounted. The conclusion in all of these presentations was that the ability to collect this data, to analyse it, and to make it available for people can make them change their behaviour – and make a city smarter.


Consequently, as big data seems to be all the rage now, most comments and questions to speakers in this event were flavoured with a general sense of optimism. My sense is that below the surface we are still somewhat trying to come to terms with big data, not knowing exactly what to think about it. As with many new phenomena, overall attitudes are probably predominantly buoyant towards this phenomenon, but there are also countering voices. One such argument was made by Tim Harford, aka the Undercover Economist, in the Financial Times of couple of months ago (Life and Arts section, March 29/30 2014). One of the things Harford pointed out was that we need to be mindful of the fact that we are still collecting data with certain parameters, ie that we are still getting only part of the story. Our data collection methods, and what data we seek to collect, are choices that leave out other information. Therefore, it is important to remain cautious about big data, and particularly about its possibilities regarding positive change.


With more time we may obtain more evidence of how big data is helping to advance our societies. What the presentations in Kyoto lacked was concrete examples of how these fancy data collection methods and analyses had actually changed something. There is an argument that is underpinning the optimism on novel solutions such as big data, which is that people will change behaviour if they only are shown an example. For me this is not intuitive. The hazards of smoking are widely acknowledged, for example, but telling this to smokers has not eliminated the habit. My guess is (as I have no evidence to back it up, but only an intuition) that banning smoking indoors in public places in many countries has had a much larger impact on levels of smoking. My conclusion in terms of smart cities and big data is the same: individual behaviour will change when the change is in the structures and formal patterns of behaviour. For example, if homeowners had a montly quota of energy to use for a fixed fee, and that they had a direct influence on when and what kind (ie how costly) extra energy to consume, this could make them very interested in following closely on their energy consumption. The ability to follow in real time the consumption, and to make choices on the energy sources during consumption, would be one way of taking an advantage of big data in energy use and to influence people’s behaviour.

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