Smart Cities and Data: Generating the Big Ideas

The whole point of big data isn’t its size. It’s less about the “how much” and more about the “how.”

Once you have the information — and these days, we have a lot — you need to know how to organize, understand, and synergize it, using it to solve a particular challenge or grasp a new opportunity. And having the right people at the table — both technologists and urbanists, scientists and planners — is necessary.

That was the focus of a plenary session, “Smart Cities, Data & Innovation,” at APA’s Policy and Advocacy Conference in Washington, D.C., Monday morning, featuring NOAA administrator Dr. Kathryn Sullivan and Sidewalk Labs Chief Policy Officer Rohit Aggarwala.

NOAA collects a great deal of data — or coordinates other federal data — that planners and communities need. For years, NOAA and APA have worked together on projects, like Digital Coast, to deliver analytical and predictive tools to help communities prepare for and respond to hazards and other issues in coastal areas.

In recent years, NOAA’s data capability has grown, resulting in better, more useful tools.

Just last month, it launched a revamped River Forecast Center able to predict flooding down to the neighborhood scale out to 30 days. Rather than just 4,000 monitoring sites nationally, some of them kilometers away from populations centers, the system now has 2.7 million data points, giving local communities a much more precise picture of flood events so that they can plan and respond, Sullivan said.

There is no doubt that NOAA data is good science and valuable information, she stressed, but to be useful it must match up with local needs.

“NOAA is largely meeting the environmental intelligence needs,” she said about the research it undertakes to understand the planet. “But we can sharpen our services by better disseminating it.” To do that, NOAA and other big data providers need to understand the decision framework that the end user is working in, she said.

It’s not just about better science, but better service, she said.

Rohit Aggarwala from Sidewalk Labs had a similar message. He pointed out that technologists have a passion for technology — creating apps that do everything from getting potholes fixed to getting pizza delivered fast.

They don’t all necessarily have an interest in using those skills for the public good. But they certainly can, and that’s where urbanists come in. “Policy makers need to figure out what they want technology to do for cities,” Aggarwala said. “Technologists don’t aspire to speak for cities. You do,” he told the audience of planners.

The nature of cities is density. And technology in cities can bring both good and bad things, he said. Technology of more than a century ago brought economies of scale, making city living more efficient for service delivery, communication, and business. That changed after World War II, with the creation of the interstate system and other shifts that fostered a suburban boom, when the “frictions of density became greater and the benefits of density were downplayed.”

Today, Aggarwala suggests, new technology poses those same risks to cities. Automated and electric vehicles could allow people to move further out, solar panels could make suburban homes net zero energy producers, and virtual reality experiences could blur the desire to be in urban spaces or even among other people. Technology could obviate the need for dense environments.

On the other hand, technology can vastly improve cities. Think of the ways it can make transportation safer and reduce the costs of coordinating major events or infrastructure projects.

Big data brings both big opportunities and big challenges. Part of navigating the smart cities movement is making sure to use technology to make a better value proposition for living in dense, urban area, Aggarwala said.

APA’s Smart Cities and Sustainability Task Force can help planners do that. Its goals are to:

  1. Anticipate and prepare for trends and emerging issues and communicate their implications.
  2. Generate the big ideas to advance our communities.
  3. Educate the public and community leaders through documentation of best practices and increase their use by planners, citizens, and elected officials.

Check out the task force’s recommendations here.

About the Author

Meghan Stromberg is APA's editor in chief.

Top image: NOAA Administrator Dr. Kathryn Sullivan speaks as Sidewalk Labs Chief Policy Officer Rohit Aggarwala looks on at right. Photo by Ben Zweig.


September 20, 2016

By Meghan Stromberg