How big data is changing our behaviours and reshaping cities

Cities are now using big data to understand the radical shifts in social and economic activities happening in response to the pandemic.

Credit to: John Hopkins Dashboard

The pandemic has significantly bring changes to cities to achieve long-term survival in a pandemic world. Due to the spread of COVID-19, cities and communities are beginning to develop new ways of communication that seek to make the most collective intelligence of urban areas.

Based on open data provided by public agencies, private sector companies are using the city as a platform to develop their own real-time dashboards and communication apps to further increase public awareness and effectively disseminate disease information. In this article, I will outline how big data analytics are transforming epidemics and future’s sustainable cities.

The proliferation of mobile devices means it is now possible to track how people move and better understand the path of an infectious disease. For example, GPS coordinates derived from smart phone data allowed experts to track contacts of COVID-19 cases, which in turn helped inform where to focus preventive measures, as well as contain the spread. This type of tracking is useful not only for piecing together what is going on during an outbreak, but it also can help us predict how diseases could move in future outbreaks and understand what interventions would be most effective.

Mobility is one of the key factors that contributes to the spread of a human-transmitted infectious disease and it is also extremely helpful when it comes to planning resource allocation or understanding the effectiveness of different mobility containment measures.

Data science revolution is now allowing us and the society to overcome these challenges, and epidemics can now be more effectively monitored, modelled and mitigated.

Reduced Economic Activity and Travel

The decline of economic activity caused by the COVID-19 has an opposite effect on air quality and traffic-related deaths. According to a satellite readings of air quality from the TROPOMI sensor on the European Space Agency’s Sentinel 5P satellite, the data suggested a reduced air pollution compared to previous years for cities around the world. One main pollutant is nitrogen dioxide (NO2) produced the emission from surface traffic, aircraft, and linked to diseases like asthma and respiratory infections. Italy, for example, saw an estimated 20% decrease in NO2 from March to May 2020 compared to the same time period in 2019. The data suggested even short-term improvements to air quality may be helping to reduce the number of deaths from respiratory illness.

Average NO2 concentrations dropped after the Italian government placed the country under lockdown. Image: European Space Agency

For both practical and public health reasons during the lockdown, cities are implicating major expansions of walking and cycling infrastructure. Big cities such as, Milan, Paris and London are now planning to transform streets with pedestrian and bike-friendly infrastructure. The idea is to give space for street-level commerce, maintain safe distances between people and create safer streets.

A great example we can learn from is the concept of the “complete streets” in Copenhagen to prioritise walking and cycling. This concept can increase public space and opportunities for healthier, active recreation while significantly reducing road traffic deaths and injuries. The other urban planning concepts should be also combined to make effective changes to a sustainable society.

Better collaboration between cities

Collective intelligence approaches are also enabling better collaboration between cities. Networks of ‘intelligent cities’ are pooling knowledge and resources about effective real-time pandemic responses. Examples are found along a continuum ranging from more centralised to more open, distributed approaches.

Other more open and collaborative models have emerged too, such as the Cities for Global Health platform, pushing cities of all shapes to combat the pandemic. It seeks to blur traditional boundaries between local, regional, city levels of administration to find collective responses to deal with this crisis. The platform invites local and regional governments of all sizes from across the globe to share their initiatives (e.g. plans, strategies, policies) that are (a) designed specifically as a reaction to the COVID-19 outbreak or (b) designed to face other health emergencies. So far the initiative has crowdsourced over 270 initiatives.

In spite of such deficiencies, digital infrastructure and collective intelligence approaches are proving to be important tools in how cities’ are managing COVID-19. They also provide a broader set of valuable lessons for how cities can better work with citizens using technology to solve social challenges.

Final Thoughts

Facing an uncertain future, all cities are adjusting to rapid and drastic changes to our daily lives. The advances in big data allow us to understand how COVID-19 is giving cities more insight into vulnerability and resilience to anticipate the emergencies.

As big data and analytical tools have transformed every industry from healthcare to retail, and now are transforming the way epidemics and governance structures are understood and managed. Despite these advances, the world still is not prepared for the next pandemic. Technological advances for understanding epidemics lag behind those in other industries. If we could predict epidemics as well as online retailers can predict how much someone is willing to pay for the latest widget, many more businesses could insure themselves against loss, and many more governments could develop effective interventions, meaning many more lives could be saved.

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