Technology

From concrete jungle to data eden

 By Erin Biba

There is a new frontier for energy innovation gets less attention because it is less dramatic and certainly less visual: using energy more efficiently and thus using less of it. But the potential in this realm is very great. The U.S. is more than 2½ times more energy efficient today than it was in the 1970s, when oil crises catapulted energy to the forefront of national politics. But there is still a great deal of slack in the system. By combining information technology, the Internet, and sophisticated monitoring and control tools, for example subway can work better or large buildings (for instance) can reduce their electricity consumption by 30% or more. Dr. Koonin, who is now at New York University, is working on these applications. His current research is in “urban informatics”—sensing, collecting and analyzing the enormous amount of “big data” generated by city life. In particular he is focusing on improving the city of New York by studying not just its subways, but also its aging infrastructure and overall air quality to help make the city a better, safer, and easier place to live…

New York City is a bustling metropolis that many would consider to be full of chaos and confusing systems all working against each other. And that feeling may only get worse over time. For example, ridership on the L line — just one of the city’s many subway routes — has risen 141 percent since 1998. The entire subway system itself sees 1.7 billion riders annually (5.4 million people every day), which is the highest rate since 1950. Naturally, this has led to overcrowding, delays and other issues along the daily commute.

So how is a city, which has been running its subway system for more than 100 years, supposed to figure out a better way to do things? A new area of research called urban informatics, which harnesses all the big data that a city produces and analyzes it to create solutions, may have an answer.

The idea behind urban informatics is that it uses the vast amounts of data that are generated daily in urban environments. Closed circuit cameras taking video of people, swiping a metrocard, writing a tweet about traffic, smart meters that store information about energy use — every one of these events happen millions of times a day and can be mined for data about how efficiently and sustainably a city is running.

What's changed in the last 20 years is the rise of technologies that let us practice informatics about cities in order to better understand them, better operate them and better plan them. You can't improve something you can't measure

“What’s changed in the last 20 years is the rise of technologies that let us practice informatics about cities in order to better understand them, better operate them and better plan them. You can’t improve something you can’t measure. Informatics lets you measure what’s going on in cities,” The Center for Urban Science and Progress at NYU’s director Steve Koonin said.

According to Koonin, that means that we can see the behavior of the infrastructure, the environment, and even the people with unprecedented granularity and timeliness. This gives us a whole new view of something that, until now, we lacked a complete and deep understanding of. It’s not something that has never been used before when it comes to informing social and behavioral sciences.

Nigel Thrift, Vice Chancellor of University of Warwick, said during a panel discussion at NYU: “We have 50 percent of people living in big cities [worldwide] at the moment and it’s going to go up to 75 percent. If we don’t get it right we’re going to get ourselves into big problems — and big data is going to be part of the solution.”

Several universities and organizations are doing this kind of work, but the Center for Urban Science and Progress at NYU is at the forefront. They are currently focusing on improving the city of New York by studying not just its subways, but also its aging infrastructure and overall air quality to help make the city a better, safer, and easier place to live. By studying available data, including the 1 terabyte-per-day of data that the city government creates, CUSP has partnered with NYC analyze the data and provide thorough reports that suggest ways of becoming more sustainable.

“Our belief is that a well articulated data strategy that can be applied in multiple cities will accelerate the adoption of effective applications of data analytics,” said Koonin. “We know that urban science is still very much a nascent field, and we are engaging cities most committed to harnessing data and learning together.”

One of the biggest problems CUSP discovered through this research is that 80 percent of all the city’s greenhouse gas emissions comes from buildings, which also are responsible for 94 percent of electricity use, and 85 percent of water use. But the average age of a building in midtown (where much of the modern construction is happening) is 57 years — and that’s long before environmental responsibility was built into new construction projects.

The Building Resiliency Task Force report that CUSP issued suggested 30 ways in which the city could counteract the negative impact of its aging buildings, protect them from big future storms like Hurricane Sandy, and still attract important commercial tenants. Sixteen of those proposals (such as ensuring drinking water and toilets function without the use of electricity) have already been passed in just two years. That’s astonishingly fast considering how difficult it is for such a large metropolitan city to affect change.

Expanding a bit outside of New York, in 2013 CUSP won a grant to team up with the National Resources Defense Council to study the energy consumption of commercial buildings in five US cities. The goal of the research is to identify 1,000 commercial real estate tenants around the country, compare their energy use, and create a rating system that allows people to see how they differ.

“The belief is that such a benchmark tool would motivate tenants to improve the efficiency of their spaces and could create a competitive advantage for those that do so. This initiative will also examine the effectiveness and long-term impact this information has on tenants by monitoring their energy consumption for the 12 month period after they receive feedback. In the U.S., commercial buildings account for 41% of energy consumption and corresponding carbon consumption. This endeavor will provide significant opportunities for building owners and managers to improve the energy performance of their properties,” CUSP said in a press release.

As cities grow larger and more humans move away from rural areas, the realities of daily life, such as energy use, are bound to increase. But thanks to the growing influence of urban informatics, there may finally be a way to see issues like subway overcrowding coming, and have a concrete plan about how it can be stopped in its tracks.

about the author
Erin Biba
Erin Biba is a freelance reporter and Correspondent for WIRED Magazine. Based in San Francisco she covers science and its intersection with technology and pop culture.