Mapping Urban Dynamics August 2014
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Advanced cartography, ubiquitous mapping applications, and location-based services have been major drivers of business opportunities and have provided consumers with manifold benefits. Mapping has become a highly competitive field, and traffic maps, indoor retail maps, and topographical maps are only the most obvious mapping applications. But mapping applications have a much greater reach and are addressing an ever-wider range of needs. Understanding the dynamics of urban environments to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of infrastructures is one major area of interest and has far-reaching implications for virtually every market participant.
The necessity of designing cities that are suitable for advanced logistics hints at the interrelated nature—and resulting complexity—of interactions among people, goods, means of transportation, infrastructures, and city layouts.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT; Cambridge, Massachusetts) in particular is very active in exploring urban dynamics. Researchers at its Senseable City Lab (http://senseable.mit.edu) believe that "the increasing deployment of sensors and hand-held electronics in recent years is allowing a new approach to the study of the built environment." Programs the lab is working on include Trash Track and LIVE Singapore. Trash Track (http://senseable.mit.edu/trashtrack) aims to improve urban waste-management systems by tagging garbage to follow its flow through cities. LIVE Singapore (http://senseable.mit.edu/livesingapore) is using data from sensors, microcontrollers, and communication devices to provide "people with access to a range of useful real-time information about their city by developing an open platform for the collection, elaboration and distribution of real-time data that reflect urban activity." Another group of Senseable City Lab researchers created an interactive website (http://hubcab.org) that maps every trip cabs made in New York City in 2011 and points out how many of those trips could have been shared to save riders money and reduce emissions. Michael Szell, a researcher at the lab, highlights that a vast number of rides could be shared because many are redundant. The MIT team is currently investigating Boston, Massachusetts; Vienna, Austria; and a number of cities in China to determine whether such an approach is viable outside New York City.
Researchers at MIT's Megacity Logistics Lab (http://megacitylab.mit.edu) have developed open-source online maps that provide information about urban supply chains. As cities grow into megacities, supply chains become more complex. To understand logistics, researchers at the lab collected data about representative neighborhoods in cities as diverse as Beijing, China; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics research director Edgar Blanco says, "We not only have to design better logistics systems in the cities, we need cities that are designed better for logistics" ("In The World: Mapping the logistics of megacities," MIT News, 9 September 2013; online). The necessity of designing cities that are suitable for advanced logistics hints at the interrelated nature—and resulting complexity—of interactions among people, goods, means of transportation, infrastructures, and city layouts. And Sarah Williams from MIT and Elizabeth Currid-Halkett from the University of Southern California (Los Angeles, California) leveraged location information from social-networking service Foursquare (Foursquare; New York, New York) to see where employees of apparel companies in New York, New York, spend their time. They found that these people made the vast majority of their professional and personal trips within the confines of the industry-related Garment District, indicating the networking relevance of population-dense environments. Michael Storper, a professor of economic geography at the London School of Economics and Political Science (London, England) and professor of regional and international development at the University of California, Los Angeles (Los Angeles, California), comments, "Williams and Currid-Halkett use data from the very technology that is often said to bring about the 'death of distance' to show that distance and proximity—being together—still matter for the most innovative parts of the economy" ("Mapping the New York fashion scene, minute by minute," MIT News, 5 February 2014; online).
Dynamics in urban environments have such a large impact on so many business areas—logistics, health care, and communications, to name a few—that growing interest in the topic is hardly surprising. The attitudes of urbanites also will play an increasingly important role in researchers' efforts to understand the psychological makeup of city populations. For instance, researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute for Open Communication Systems and the Technical University of Berlin (both Berlin, Germany) surveyed 120 drivers about their driving habits and attitudes about traffic and found that two-thirds of the respondents favor taking stress-free routes even if doing so adds more than three minutes to the trip. In addition, three-fourths of the respondents were willing to accept detours if doing so would improve traffic in general. These results are important because they indicate that many motorists place more importance on having a minimally stressful driving experience than on arriving at their destination as quickly as possible. A new real estate development in New York City aims to implement a very comprehensive approach to identify and measure urban dynamics. New York University's (New York, New York) Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP) is partnering with real estate developers to make the Hudson Yards development a quantified community. The researchers want to measure and analyze a wide variety of metrics, including pedestrian flow, traffic, waste disposal, and social interactions. CUSP director Steven E. Koonin believes the project will help data scientists gain a better understanding of and develop new ways to model communities: "The real gold will be in combining the data science and the social sciences" ("Huge New York Development Project Becomes a Data Science Lab," Bits [blog], New York Times, 14 April 2014; online).
Some researchers are looking at interactions between urban environments. Dirk Brockmann from Humboldt University of Berlin (Berlin, Germany) and Dirk Helbing from ETH Zurich (Zurich, Switzerland) studied how cities connect to one another and created a new model that describes how diseases spread. The scientists believe that geographic distance has less of an impact on the spread of disease than does effective distance—a measure of distance that takes into consideration the density of the flow of traffic between airports. According to the researchers, "The global spread of epidemics, rumors, opinions, and innovations are complex, network-driven dynamic processes. The combined multiscale nature and intrinsic heterogeneity of the underlying networks make it difficult to develop an intuitive understanding of these processes" ("The Hidden Geometry of Complex, Network-Driven Contagion Phenomena," Science, 13 December 2013; online). This statement applies to most dynamics in urban environments.