New computational center will use data-driven techniques to inform urban policy

Over the next several decades, the population of the world’s cities will nearly double, increasing by 2.6 billion people. Concurrently, an unprecedented volume and diversity of data is being collected and published by an increasing number of cities, providing opportunities to optimize the operation of cities and anticipate the impact of their growth using computational methods and tools.

To seize this opportunity, the new Urban Center for Computation and Data will apply the most advanced computational and data-driven techniques to the challenge of intelligent urban planning and design. The center will be initially funded by a $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation that unites researchers from several Chicago institutions, city officials and private enterprise with the Computation Institute, a joint initiative between the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.

“We’re seeing accelerated urbanization globally, outpacing traditional tools and methods of urban design and operation,” said UrbanCCD Director Charlie Catlett, CI senior fellow and senior computer scientist at Argonne National Laboratory. “The consequences are seen in inefficient transportation networks belching greenhouse gases and unplanned city-scale slums with crippling poverty and health challenges. There is an urgent need to apply advanced computational methods and resources to both explore and anticipate the impact of urban expansion and find effective policies and interventions.”

The collaboration will analyze urban data and build complex computer models that simulate the impact of policy decisions and development upon a city and its residents. For example, a multi-dimensional model could simulate the impact of adding or subtracting bus lines on a region's crime, unemployment or access to health care. Urban planners and architects can simulate the energy and infrastructure needs of new, large-scale developments with unprecedented depth of detail before construction begins.

A starting point for UrbanCCD research will be the hundreds of data sets published by the City of Chicago Data Portal, an initiative dedicated to open government data. Earlier this week, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel signed an executive order expanding the release of data from city agencies.

“Here in Chicago, analytics is informing our decisions, making City services smarter and more effective and continually pushing us to a place where we can innovate and move forward. Our ambitious open data program works in tandem, engages a broad community that supports this innovation,” said Brett Goldstein, Chief Data Officer at the City of Chicago. “A center dedicated to open and collaborative research and planning around data-driven analysis will help feed intelligent urban policy and sustain innovation not just in Chicago but in cities across the world.”

The center’s first major project is a $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to create the Urban Sciences Research Coordination Network, which unites social, economic, health and computational scientists to develop a roadmap for data-driven urban sciences. USRCN will engage collaborators internationally, with an initial team from the Computation Institute, UChicago, Argonne, the University of Chicago Medicine, Chapin Hall, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the City of Chicago, and the Chicago-based international architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

As Chicago and an increasing number of other cities are releasing datasets on crime, public transportation, schools, budgets and other areas to the public for open use, urban researchers used to working with scarce and outdated information are finding new opportunities and challenges in this abundance of data. The USRCN will form and support interdisciplinary teams to identify the relevant questions this flood of urban data can support, and identify the capabilities and resources required to pursue that research.

“UrbanCCD is an ambitious example of the interdisciplinary mission of the Computation Institute and the potential of computational science to improve the world,” said Ian Foster, director of the Computation Institute. “By working with academic experts, city officials and industry, this new center can catalyze the groundbreaking discoveries needed to keep pace with rapid urbanization.”

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