SimCity, for Real: Measuring an Untidy Metropolis

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THE notion of a "science of cities" seems contradictory. Science is a realm of grand theory and precise measurement, while cities are messy agglomerations of people and human foible. But science is precisely the ambition of New York University's Center for Urban Science and Progress. Founded last year, the center has been getting under way in recent weeks, moving into new office space and firing off its first project proposal to the National Science Foundation.

The center's director is Steven E. Koonin, a Brooklyn native and graduate of Stuyvesant High School, who came to N.Y.U. after a stint in the Obama administration as the under secretary for science in the Department of Energy. He is both a theoretical physicist and science policy expert. The center shouldn't lack for intellectual rigor.

The initiative at N.Y.U. is part of a broader trend: the global drive to apply modern sensor, computing and data-sifting technologies to urban environments, in what has become known as "smart city" technology. The goals are big gains in efficiency and quality of life by using digital technology to better manage traffic and curb the consumption of water and electricity, for example. By some estimates, water and electricity use can be cut by 30 to 50 percent over the course of a decade.

Cities from Stockholm to Singapore are deep into smart city projects. The market looms as big, lucrative business for technology companies. "The Smart City movement," according to a report this month from IDC, a technology research firm, "is emerging and growing as a significant force of innovation and investment at all levels of government." The N.Y.U. center's partners include technology companies like I.B.M., Cisco Systems and Xerox, as well as universities and the New York City government.

City governments, like other institutions, have collected data for years to try to become more efficient. There have been some notable achievements, like CompStat, the New York Police Department's system for identifying crime patterns, introduced in the mid-1990s and later widely adopted elsewhere.

What is different today, says Dr. Koonin, is that digital technologies -- sensors, wireless communication, storage and clever software algorithms -- are advancing so rapidly that it is becoming possible to see and measure activities in an urban environment as never before.

"We can build an observatory to be able to see the pulse of the city in detail and as a whole," Dr. Koonin explains.

Dr. Koonin's digital "observatory" of urban life raises questions about privacy. He is keenly aware of that issue, and vows that the center is engaged in science rather than surveillance. For example, individuals' names or tax identification numbers would be stripped from personal records.

The collected data, he says, will be the raw material for modeling outcomes -- say, the steps required to reduce electricity consumption in a high-rise office building or in an individual apartment. Those modeled predictions, he adds, can guide policy or inform citizens.

"I'd like to create SimCity for real," Dr. Koonin says, referring to the classic computer simulation game.

To help, Dr. Koonin is forging partnerships with government laboratories to tap their expertise in building complex computer simulations, like climate models for weather prediction.

The path to SimCity will come step by step, through tackling specific projects. The first one is a program to monitor and analyze noise. The largest single cause of complaints to New York's 311 phone and online service is noise. It is a quality-of-life issue, Dr. Koonin says, and one related to health, especially when noise disrupts sleep.

The 10-member project team includes music professors, computer scientists and graduate students. The group will use the city's 311 data, but also plans to employ wireless sensors -- tiny ones outside windows, noise meters on traffic lights and street corners, perhaps a smartphone app for crowdsourced data gathering. To inform policy choices, data on noise limits for vehicles and muffler costs might be added to the street-level noise readings. Then, computer simulations could predict the likely effect of enforcement steps, charges or incentives to buy properly working mufflers for vehicles without them.

The project, Dr. Koonin says, might also pull in data on traffic flows, garbage pickup times and building classifications. For example, he says, a 2 a.m. garbage pickup could be routed to a neighborhood with little residential housing.

The hope, he says, is that a problem many people view as an inevitable, if grating fact of urban life can be made less severe. "It's the beginning of what we want to do," he explains.

Another project on the drawing board is technology for capturing thermal images of buildings across much of the city, as a starting point for research on energy use.

The center will focus its research and resources on one city -- New York, as "a living laboratory."

That may give the center a leg up, since New York, under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, is at the forefront of using data to guide operations. In 2010, the city even set up a team of data scientists for special projects in the mayor's office.

ONE problem the team tackled was illegal conversions, landlords packing far more people into an apartment building or house than its zoning permits. These locations are fire hazards. Data from 19 agencies -- including late tax payments, repair permits, foreclosure records and ages of the buildings -- were mined to predict where to send the city's 200 building inspectors, who field more than 20,000 complaints a year.

Inspectors responding to complaints usually find high-risk conditions 13 percent of the time. Guided by data predictions, inspectors greatly improved their odds when pursuing complaint reports, finding those risky conditions 70 percent of the time, says Michael P. Flowers, analytics director in the mayor's office.

The city government is committed to giving the N.Y.U. center access to all its public data. That is a rich asset not only for research, but also for its potential to change government operations and public behavior. In many "smart city" projects, "the single biggest impact is transparency -- the effect of measurement and communicating the data," observes Jonathan R. Woetzel, a director of McKinsey & Company in Shanghai, who heads the firm's consulting work with cities.

Communicating effectively with data, experts say, requires skills beyond technology. Jurij R. Paraszczak, director of smarter cities research at I.B.M., pointed to a water-management pilot study in Dubuque, Iowa, in which 150 households were equipped with sensors to measure and analyze their water use. They had the data, but the households were also grouped into teams for an informal competition. Water use dropped by 7 percent in two months.

"People live in cities," Dr. Paraszczak says. "So much of the equation is not just the data but how you encourage people to change their behavior."

The social ingredients of motivation, habit and incentives, according to Dr. Koonin, will be part of the research agenda at the N.Y.U. center. "The approach we're taking here is from sensors to sociologists. This has got to be science with a social dimension."

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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