Already a major technology trend, 2012 promises to be a watershed for "big data." A shorthand term for the proliferation of large datasets, big data also refers to the expansion of analytic techniques for teasing meaning from the vast archives of information produced by the digital world. The New York Times' Steve Lohr declared we have entered the "age of big data" in a recent article that compared it with another revolutionary research tool -- the microscope.
Historically, data sources for urban planning have remained relatively stable. Planners relied on a collection of well-known government-produced datasets to do their work, including statistics and geographic layers from federal, state and local sources. Produced by regulatory processes or occasional surveys, the strengths and limitations of these sources are well known to planners and many citizens. However all this is beginning to change. Not only has the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey introduced a bewildering variety of data products, all with margins of error, three interrelated categories of new data are growing rapidly: crowdsourced, private, and "big" data.
Urban planning is an inherently knowledge-intensive activity. Even the most prosaic zoning change or development proposal can generate reams of memos, transcripts, minutes and notes. Planners routinely manage statistical and geographic data for research and analysis. In fact, this material proves so voluminous there is even a book on how planners can collect, manage, and share information effectively.
A comment I heard recently reminded me how often these systems can go awry. After calling a government agency to track down information about a program, my wife was told "the person who knows about it" wasn't in so she would have to call back. Is this common situation inevitable? The field of knowledge management argues it can be avoided through deliberate organizational strategies. Without them, individual employees hoard critical information and managers fear the impact of retirements or departures. For the disorganized organization, hiring new employees can also require a lengthy orientation process. When it comes to government organizations, these problems are not merely about organizational inefficiency. Disorganization can result in costly mistakes, legal trouble, and effect the ability for the public to access information in a timely way.
Earlier this week I read a report about creating a geographic data system for a community group in Lawrence, Massachusetts. The document contained detailed technical documentation for how to use iPAQ handheld computers to collect geocoded data. Since the data was collected and managed in geographic information system (GIS) software, it required pages of technical instructions. This case seemed a prime example of how GIS tools missed the mark for planners who need to work with geographic data, but in a different way than technical analysts. The purpose of the project was to empower community youth to collect basic data, a task ill suited to software designed for data management by experts using hundreds of attributes and a fine degree of precision.
One day later, I found myself reading Newsweek's cover story about the iPad, which reported that Apple expects to sell hundreds of thousands of the sturdy, easy-to-use devices in the coming months. Could the iPad be used for planning? I have previously written about the potential for the iPhone to augment city life. Since then the types of apps I described have only grown in popularity: navigation apps that use transit data, apps to report potholes or other issues to city officials, augmented reality apps providing information about your surroundings, and geographic networking and gaming like FourSquare.
During his dramatic presentation last April, President Barack Obama laid out a bold vision for high speed rail in America. Wielding a stylish red, white, and blue map (below) he presented the proposed corridors for new high speed trains. (Similar, if not identical, to plans long sitting on the shelf at the Federal Railway Administration.) He asked Americans to "Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination." In reality limited funds, our dysfunctional planning processes, and the historical lack of investment in rail will mean the U.S. will most likely end up with a diverse collection of regional rail systems that may not go that fast.
City data catalogs are fast moving from the exception to the norm for large U.S. cities.
Washington, DC's Data Catalog, spearheaded by former CTO Vivek Kundra, was an early leader. The site combines hundreds of static government-created datasets from across DC government with administrative feeds like the city's 311 system. Their site emphasizes providing data in multiple formats, including where possible formats that don't require proprietary software. Kundra's selection as the nation's first Chief Information Officer, and launch of the federal government's Data.gov has elevated the principle among the federal government's vast datasets. DC's two "apps" contests sought to encourage creative uses of the data made available, and some of which are available at the DC App Store.
Beyond DC, many big cities have recently launched or are planning open data catalogs of their own.
What's better than Twitter in the city? An iPhone. With a connection to the Internet, built-in camera, location-awareness, 3-access accelerometer and colorful display, the Apple iPhone has become much more than a mobile phone: it's a sophisticated mobile computing platform. Combine this technology with a library of thousands of programs and growing ecosystem of developers, the iPhone is powerful and versatile tool to transform how people interact with their surroundings.
A growing number of iPhone apps are taking advantage of the phone's functionality to allow people to navigate, measure, observe, and interact with cities in new ways. This post describes some I have come across for e-government, urban sensing and interaction, and navigation. First, a caveat: I don't actually own one of the devices myself and haven't tested the apps (yet). I've certainly missed many, so leave your favorites in the comments below.
One of the interesting parts of my position at the Boston Metropolitan Area Planning Council over the past year has been working with U.S. Census Bureau surveys and data. Since last September, this work has included preparations to ensure the region is prepared for the 2010 Census.
Mandated by the U.S. Constitution to determine political representation, every planner knows the U.S. Census has become the single most important data source for studying American cities. The U.S. Census Bureau produces dozens of surveys, the Census held once every ten years is by far the most important. Many of the other surveys, as well as countless private sector studies and projections, depend on the decennial census numbers.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that in 2007, over 9.8 million American households had no auto available at home. Although those car free households make up only 8.7% of the U.S., the split by housing ownership is striking: only 3.3% of owner occupied homes do without at least one vehicle, where fully 19.9% of renters have no cars parked in the proverbial driveway.
For some, not owning a vehicle is not a matter of choice -- just the reality of limited resources. For others, it's a matter of preference, and many residents of cities with fairly good public transportation choosing to go without cars. Although car ownership is a useful indicator of neighborhoods that provide good options for public transit, the reality is the most important variable isn't whether you own one, but how much you drive.
That's the idea behind the annual Car-Free Challenge sponsored by the San Francisco Bay Area nonprofit TransForm (formerly TALC - Transportation and Land Use Coalition). The Challenge's over 160 participants pledged to drive less than 125 miles in June, much less than the Bay Area average of 540, or the U.S. average of over 1,000. Many participants contributed blog posts about their experiences on the Challenge website. More than just a group of footloose young professionals living in The Mission, challenge participants were remarkably diverse group living mostly in the Bay Area but also Sacramento, Los Angeles, and cities outside of California.
The conference bags handed out to the attendees of the 2007 National Planning conference in Philadelphia had four words printed on one side: value, choice, engagement, community. The words echo the long mission statement of the American Planning Association, evidence of what I described last year as the pragmatic position of the profession that refrains from making a larger argument about the form of the city. Here's a taste:
"Our collaborative efforts will continue to result in great success for APA and the vital communities we strive to support, and APA members will continue to help create communities of lasting value. We value choice and community engagement, diversity, inclusion and social equity."
Since then, a new program from the organization and other evidence may suggest a subtle shift in professional values now underway.