Base London Report – Is Big Data a Big Deal?

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We’ve all heard the press hype, but how exactly will the rise of ‘Big Data’ impact and benefit our cities’ infrastructures? This was the question at the heart of last week’s panel discussion hosted by World Infrastructure News at Base London.

Chaired by Brian Kilkelly of World Cities Network, the panel included HOK vice president Barry Hughes, Scott Cain of future cities and the Technology Strategy Board, IBM data expert Ed Bryan and Parsons Brinckerhoff’s head of sustainability Lynne Ceeney.

First of all, the panel questioned, is Big Data even that new? The Domesday Book was, after all, compiled in 1086. Also, as Ed Bryan pointed out, sensors and data were being used by governments as early as the 1940s. Perhaps the fundamental recent shift has been the vast increase in speed at which data can be received and distributed.

Another key transition to take place has been the movement of data from the ‘back office’ into the mainstream. As individuals we are now all ‘wired in’ to infrastructure as part of a smart city ecosystem, tracked from cellphone tower to cellphone tower as we contribute data willingly or unwillingly to services like Google maps, traffic jam calculators and so on.

Fighting the case for big data’s useful application in architecture, Barry Hughes pointed to our new-found ability to use data in the modelling of buildings before they are built, thus maximising energy efficiency and sustainability. The next step, Hughes said, is to plug these efficient models into a city model of robust data.

As Ed Bryan agreed, this application of analytical insight can help solve our cities’ problems, through transition to multi-faceted operational constructs, smarter visual analytics, vertical solutions in water management, transportation, city planning operations and emergency management.

In what was perhaps the key message of this discussion, Scott Cain pondered that, if there is value and utility in big data, how does this lead us to behave differently? As Scott put it, “You can release as much data and understand the flows and patterns within a city as much as you like, but at some point you’re going to have to get the diggers out.”

With a more sceptical approach to big data, Lynne Ceeney concurred that, while the indication of infrastructural problems through data is all very well, data itself is not the answer. Big data is perhaps overhyped. We need physical resources to fix infrastructural problems, together with infrastructural systems that offer resilience and flexibility.

While big data is useful in realtime, every smart system needs a single aim, and the multi-faceted, fractured nature of large cities – which contain so many ‘players’ – makes marshalling this data a huge task in itself. There is also the challenge of the ‘big brother’ syndrome where public buy-in is not achieved and there is a move to resist sharing.

Something our panel seemed to agree on was that the gap between Big Data’s rhetoric and the reality of smarter cities on the ground needs to be closed. As Barry Hughes observed, “data is agnostic” – it doesn’t help you make more stuff. You can only open up the hard shoulder once, or tinker with speed limits so many times to try and deal with congestion in a 100 year old road network.

Perhaps the big challenges for city data are how to deal with the legacy of data-less infrastructure and how to ensure that our experience of big data is a positive one.

Richard Greenan

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July 17, 2013 13:25 pm