Smart Cities, Big Data and Social Physics

In December last year I delivered this lecture as part of of UCL’s lunch hour lecture series, with the title “Social Physics in the Big City” – one which let me bring in themes from Big Data, Open Data and Smart Cities* without explicitly mentioning or dwelling on any. I’ll admit to finding these slippery concepts.

Open Data is perhaps the most clear-cut of these – academics, public sector groups and NGOs sharing data in an accessible, transparent and machine-readable way. The Open Data Institute and organisations like Creative Commons and Digital Science are trying to encourage and commercialise the sharing of data, and to place data and data methods on a similar footing with publications to recognise the value of the work that goes into collecting these datasets and creating tools to understand them.

Big Data and Smart Cities are more amorphous. Big Data is typically defined in terms of heuristics which are synonyms for “big enough to make my brain hurt”. This is a convenient fudge to cover new ideas, slightly older ideas, and things people have been doing for ages. This happened when I worked in “nanotechnology” and the term was used to mean “nano-scale science” – so most of chemistry, biochemistry and materials science, and bits of physics, electronic engineering, and anything else you needed grant money for. I use “social physics” in a similar way in my lunch hour lecture to mean “quantitative social science” – I’m not hubristic enough to say that I know enough about geography or planning to lay claim to their expertise, but the basic philosophies aren’t new.

Smart Cities are a more important concept in some ways. The concept of sustainability seems to be a key way in which they differ from shiny hi-tech cities of the future. I think the question “for whom are these cities smarter?” is one we should be asking. At a time, in the UK at least, of massive inequality, will smart cities find ways to support the marginalised, or will it just be a way of further enhancing the lives of a technocratic elite? The Smart Cities concept claims to think about environment, energy and social needs, so it’s important to keep focussed on that and not get distracted by all the flying cars we’ll be travelling around in.

James Cheshire did a very good CASA seminar in January, touching on some of the methodological and disciplinary issues of big data, social media mining, and the interface between quantitative human geography and these techniques. It made a sober and reflective counterpoint to my more flag-waving talk, but unfortunately it wasn’t filmed; perhaps if you ask him really nicely he’ll turn it into a blog post? Suffice it to say, there are problems of data quality, framing and availability in quantitative geography which haven’t gone away “because Twitter”. The technologies we now have access to are indeed staggering, but there are methodological problems that don’t just disappear, and there are methodological problems we create by leaning heavily on the abundance of data. For academics, dealing with these in a systematic, logical, even scientific manner is a major challenge of big data, smart cities, and social physics (whatever that is).

*Typing this on an iPhone repeatedly throws up the typo “smart cuties”, which is of course the name of the 2013 calendar featuring the beautiful staff of CASA

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