15.05.2013, 12:27
posted in

Strelka students Artur Shakhbazyan and Glafira Parinos interviewed Reuters’ Katya Serova, head of Urban Data and Mosgorchat, about big urban data, the Internet of Things, and Facebook, the world’s third most populous country.

AS: What is big urban data, and what’s special about it? What are the various types, and why do we study them?

KS: Urban Data is the direct study of data about cities, and Mosgorchat is an experimental community devoted to learning how to gather and analyze this data. We divide big urban data into several broad categories: urban information in the traditional sense (statistics, real-time data) and alternative data (activists’ complaints and suggestions, and virtual content created by residents). The latter category is separate because residents don’t simply ask questions and make suggestions, they also reflect and discuss urban issues. We call this category the “invisible city.” It’s the city’s invisible communication zones, the city that lives in residents’ minds and conversations. Mosgorchat is the embodiment of this “invisible city.” Big urban data can be further divided into two groups: hard data (which we collect with physical instruments, such as the cameras that capture traffic patterns) and soft data (the “invisible city” — residents’ desires, opinions, and questions).

AS: What ideally would we gain from being able to analyze this data?

KS: Big urban data could become the basis for intelligent urban growth. What we currently call “smart cities” are actually very dumb. They’ve got plenty of smart technology, but they continue to develop in dumb ways, because neither city managers nor residents know their city. They don’t know what’s important now and what will be important tomorrow. There was an excellent post about this recently on the “Gorod ot Uma” blog (by Fyodor Novikov) called, “The Great Illusion of the Mission Control Center.” Currently, big data produced by social networks, particularly Twitter, is frequently used in disaster relief. Rescuers used Twitter to search for victims of the Japanese earthquake. The Red Cross created a group that aggregated tweets and searched for missing people under the rubble. The best-known example of big data being used in this way is Ushahidi, a service created to track instances of ethnic violence in Kenya by gathering text messages. (It’s currently in use in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mexico and India — for vote monitoring — etc.) Urban data collected by physical objects (hard big urban data) can also be used to prevent disasters, mediate their effects, and manage cities. For instance, IBM created a system in Rio de Janeiro that prevents and liquidates the consequences of natural disasters using data from instruments in the city processed in a single command center. Later, this system was adapted to the city’s transportation system. You can read more about this system on Gorod ot Uma.

AS: Can big data analysis give us a glimpse of the future?

KS: This is precisely what we want our project to accomplish. Using urban data dynamics (trends and spikes), we will analyze current conditions in the city and make predictions. One important clarification: We use the “urban event” very specifically. It is not an “event” in the sense of a fire or a film screening, it’s a spike in activity, a statistical event, and this spike can occur long before or well after the actual event or incident. By analyzing these urban events, it’s possible to monitor the city’s “pulse” and make predictions.

SH: Where does the data come from? Who or what is the source? Who produces and collects it?

KS: When sensors and chips are installed in large numbers of urban objects, the objects acquire virtual projections and form a complete virtual extension of the city. We call this phenomenon the “Internet of Things.” The Internet of Things allows us to collect hard big urban data and better manage the non-virtual city. Rio de Janeiro provides a good example of using telecommunications data. Mobile phone operators provide information about where people are at a given moment by determining the location of their mobile phone. Of course, the data is anonymous. Information about residents’ movement helps to create effective transportation systems and other aspects of urban development. Istanbul has such a project, called “City in Motion.” The government uses data provided by the mobile operator Vodafone for urban planning and development. Similar projects exist in Singapore and other cities. Researchers at the MIT SENSEable City Lab are studying the movement of pedestrians and public transportation vehicles and using data to analyze the situation in a city (project Real-Time Rome). Online discussions, blogs, and socials networks used by “Internet-savvy residents” are another source of big urban data. By applying semantic analysis, it’s possible to monitor the trends and events of “city people.” We spoke about this earlier when we talked about utilizing soft big urban data to study the “invisible city.”

GP: The Moscow city government has launched an open data portal, data.mos.ru, where departments are required to upload data about their work. Could this influence government transparency and urban life?

KS: The trend towards open data is extremely important and, of course, it’s wonderful! But what’s important here is the availability of both statistical data and real-time information. Real-time data allows the city to correct itself; it’s important for residents, whose actions guide the process of self-correction. When they’re informed of the situation here and now, residents made decisions about future actions, and each of these decisions is part of the self-correcting mechanism. The most well-known example of such a mechanism is Yandex.Probki. A user sees a “red” road on the map, and he drives another route. Even if he’s not conscious of doing so, he’s influencing the transportation situation in the city by alleviating traffic jams. We’re used to this mechanism and aren’t even aware how much it affects traffic. What would happen if there were identical mechanisms in other spheres of urban life?

AS: One of the things you often hear about social network analysis is that the number of people who use social networks is less than the number of city residents. Can this minority accurately represent the entire city?

KS: This is a very common critique: the question about the “digital divide” and the non-representativeness of big urban data culled from the Internet. But this shortcoming of crowd surfing is much less significant than many think. It’s important to keep in mind that Facebook is the third most populous country on earth. Whoever says nobody’s using it or writing on it is, at the very least, overstating their case. On the other hand, we’d be exaggerating if we said that everybody uses Facebook and everybody complains about the city on it. But the fact is that more and more users are doing this. The Internet gives residents simple instruments for opinion sharing, self-expression and to “do irreparable good,” to use a phrase coined by V. Esmanov. Residents have begun to participate in city life. In one of his works, Clay Shirky, an American researcher who studies the social impact of Internet development, writes that we have more and more free time, and at last we’re ready to use it to participate in sometime. We’ve always been participating in something, it’s just that throughout the era of apathy, the era of individualism and societal atomization — when the television appeared and we all sat at home — we became so unaccustomed to participation that we had to invent a term, “cultural participation,” to remind ourselves that such a thing exists.

AS: How is your current project going? What are your goals, and what problems are you encountering?

KS: There’s really one project: Urban Data. Mosgorchat is an experimental community, a prototype for communities that might be developed along various lines in the future. Although, in fact, Mosgorchat is much more than simply an experiment. We always talk about the value of communication itself, about the significance of the community not only as a content producer, but also as a truly unified group of people who find it interesting and enjoyable to interact with one another. This is the value of Mosgorchat for me. I know that interesting people respond to my questions with ideas and opinions. I know that my point of view will be heard. I understand that participants support the research and are truly rooting for intelligent urban development, just as I am. With Mosgorchat, we’re also creating maps, which is a direction that arose completely spontaneously. One community member posted a silly map of the Moscow metro, with pseudo-slang names substituted for the actual nicknames of the stations. The new names didn’t at all correspond to real ones people use. We were surprised and somehow offended. Why, for example, should Chertanovskaya, which has been called “Cherta” since time immemorial, now be called “Chertanovka”? Surprise gave way to decisiveness. We decided to correct the errors and create an alternative, using bottom-up and crowd surfing. We made an interactive, Wiki-style map that gave everybody the opportunity to name the stations. After the Internet news portal The Village wrote about our map, we saw a spike in participation, social resonance, and discussion. Riding this wave, we decided to create a more comprehensive map that included that names for Moscow’s districts, as well as their borders. We want to understand which spacial categories Muscovites use, where residents’ “territory” ends, and what they consider “their region” to be. These maps — Mosraiony and Moiraion — are slowly being completed. There are many reasons for this, both technical and substantial. (It’s harder to mark district borders than to simply write a name for a metro station, and it’s less amusing.) But there’s also a deeper truth here. Muscovites truly visualize the city first and foremost through the prism of the metro system or the GPS map. They don’t live in local communities and surrounding territories. In Russia, my territory ends at my apartment door, and many regions are designed to allow residents to go back and forth between their apartment building and local metro station as fast as possible. How can we talk about re-thinking and reinvigorating spaces like this? It’s a very interesting characteristic that the Russian geographer V. Kagansky called “spacial insanity.” But the most interesting thing is that the situation is changing thanks to the development of modern technology: mobile maps, local Internet media, etc.

AS: Can residents be taught to think deeply and become more “spatially sane”?

KS: Many believe that this mentality is a relic of the Soviet period, others chalk it up to other historical factors. In either case, it’s linked to the development of the city and its people, and now a new era has arrived (cultural participation, a desire to reflect and discuss, attention to cities and urban development issues, etc.). Naturally, we need to teach people to use what we already have (this concerns new technology first and foremost). It’s likely less a matter of “teaching,” than of showing people that something exists that can and must be used and is interesting and useful. That’s what the “Gorod ot Uma” radio program and blog are all about. We need to put new questions on the agenda. After all, people can now do more than think about them in isolation; they can discuss them and somehow understand them and hold them in their minds as they go about their urban life. This can be done only with the aid of intellectual provocation, which is exactly what we’re doing at Mosgorchat with our maps, riddles, and video. We need to put maps in peoples’ hands. Once we do that, it’s not a matter of training or compulsion, but of creating opportunities and attracting attention and interest.