Architecture: What does Big Data mean for our cities?

Size, population and the number of petrol stations can yield fascinating insights into how our cities function best - but we must remember that any self-organising system is more than the sum of its parts.

In a blog post last year, the scientist Stephen Wolfram, creator of the Mathematica software and the “computational knowledge engine” Wolfram|Alpha, suggested that the next revolution would be in “personal analytics”. He demonstrated this idea by collating and charting his life using his vast archive of personal data, including every email he had sent since 1989. In this way, he could see which years were the most busy or what times of the day he sent the most emails. His desktop calendar also revealed data about the course of an average day, while his phone records showed who he was talking to and for how long.

Wolfram’s company has already released a similar app on Facebook, so that people can chart their personal data to see everything from which friends live the highest above sea level to how networks of contacts interweave. We are, Wolfram might suggest, the sum of our information trail. Our lives have become data sets to be probed, charted and, once collated, analysed for efficiencies and savings.

In the new age of “Big Data”, does the same go for our cities? Just as Wolfram has reduced his life to packets of data, many urban thinkers now believe that the city is no longer just a place but a living field of information to be harvested.

Big claims are being made for this notion. Le Corbusier once called for the rationalisation of the city, making it a machine for living; today, many think that data, in the words of Assaf Biderman, the associate director of MIT’s Senseable City Lab, will make our cities “more human”.

Urban living used to be an art. Now, it is a science, burdened with the heavy-sounding label of “quantitative urbanism”. It is preached with the moral fervour of a Victorian public health official and involves some of the biggest names in the software, consultancy and infrastructure industries: IBM, Cisco, Philips, McKinsey & Company and Booz Allen Hamilton, among others.

Yet away from the hard sell, does this quantitative approach to ourselves and our cities tell us anything? Is the accumulation of data the same as the development of knowledge?

In 2003, the British-born physicist Geoffrey West started to study the metabolism of cities and soon came up with some surprising results. West wanted to find out whether the zoological rules first devised in the 1930s by Max Kleiber – which showed how all forms of life, from a fly to an elephant, follow the same equation that combines size, energy use and life expectancy – might apply to something as large and chaotic as a city.

West and his team at the Santa Fe Institute gathered together a huge data set: measurements of scale for urban centres in the US of over 50,000 citizens; statistics on “gross metropolitan product”; crime figures; the amount of money made by petrol stations in all 50 states; patents, as well as tax returns. Then, they put it all together into one database. They also included figures from the National Bureau of Statistics of China and Eurostat and even measurements of road surfaces from across Germany, as well as the amount of copper used in overhead wiring.

Surprisingly, the results reduced the life of a city to a mathematical rule: a Kleiberesque “unified theory of urban living”. So, while we can view individual cities as having their own particular history and personality, underlying rules apply that mean they have a lot in common with each other.

Yet cities do not follow Kleiber’s law exactly – rather than slowing down as they get bigger, cities speed up: they become more productive, creative, efficient and sustainable. As West points out, if you tell him the size and population of a city, he can cal - culate its crime rate, the number of patents it produces a year, how many petrol stations it needs, how many HIV-positive people reside there. According to West, the essential characteristics of a city can be reduced to an equation. Size matters, it seems.

Other urban thinkers, meanwhile, are starting to use the mathematics of complexity in an attempt to rethink how cities work. In this method, our understanding of networks and their emergent properties allow us to see how cities might work like beehives, ant or termite hills, the flow of liquids or the neural patterns of the brain.

This new urbanism – which views the city as a combination of networks and information – does not, in the words of John Keats, unweave the rainbow but forces us to question some of our long-held assumptions: what we consider to be the ideal size for a city; how we can use the qualities of complexity to rethink how the city is organised. Often, these discussions are conducted in the esoteric language of calculus and network theory. However, this can only have an impact when it is once again translated back into the language of the city – a place made up of people.

However, it would be wrong to think that data is the story. Information is the message, not the medium, and we need to be careful that this full-throttle embrace of data does not wash away the many other ways of looking at the city.

Just as Wolfram’s personal analytics do not show us the full extent of his life story, quantitative urbanism does not give us a complete picture of the modern city with all its elements. As complexity theory tells us, one of the characteristics of a self-organ - ising system – such as a city or a beehive – is that it will always be more than the sum of its parts.

Only connect. Our cities are viewed by planners as data sets. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

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Doing a Radiohead: how to disappear online

The band has performed an online Houdini in advance of its ninth album – but it’s harder than it looks. 

At the beginning of May, the band Radiohead’s web presence – well, its Twitter, Facebook, and website, at least – went offline.

Lead singer Thom Yorke has repeatedly criticised streaming, and the future of online music in general, and it's clear that his opinion fed into this month's decision to reject social media in favour of sending individual cards to the band's fans in the post. 

However, it’s also a clever publicity stunt in the run up to the rumoured release of the band's ninth album, since it plays into a growing paranoia around the lives we live online, and quite how permanent they are. In reality, though, Radiohead has done a pretty terrible job of disappearing from the internet. Its Facebook and Twitter accounts still exist, and widely available caching services actually mean you can still see Radiohead.com if you so wish. 

These are the steps you’d need to take to really disappear from the internet (and never be found).

Delete your acccounts

Radiohead may have deleted its posts on Facebook and Twitter, but its accounts – and, therefore user data – still exist on the sites. If this was a serious move away from an online presence, as opposed to a stunt, you’d want to delete your account entirely.

The site justdelete.me rates sites according to how easy they make it to delete your data. If you only hold accounts with “easy” rated sites, like Airbnb, Goodreads and Google, you’ll be able to delete your account through what justdelete.me calls a “simple process”. JustDelete.me also links you directly to the (sometimes difficult-to-find) account deletion pages.

Failing that, delete what you can

If, however, you’re a member of sites that don’t allow you to delete your account like Blogger, Couchsurfing or Wordpress, you may be stuck with your account for good. However, you should at least be able to delete posts and any biographical information on your profile.

If this bothers you, but you want to create an account with these sites, Justdelete.me also offers a “fake identity generator” which spits out fake names and other details to use in the signup process.

Go to Google

Search results are the hardest thing to erase, especially if they’re on sites which published your details without your permission. However, thanks to the European Commission “Right to be forgotten” ruling in 2014, you can now ask that certain search results be deleted using this online form.  

Ditch your smartphone

Smartphones tend to track your location and communicate with app and web servers constantly. For true privacy, you’d want to either disconnect your phone from all accounts (including iCloud or Google) or else get a basic phone which does not connect to the internet.

Give out your passwords

The artist Mark Farid decided in October 2015 to live without a digital footprint until April 2016, but was aghast when he realised quite how often our data is collected by our devices. As a result, he decided to live without bank accounts, use a phone without internet connectivity, and use an unregistered Oyster.

When I saw him speak at an event just before his off-grid experiment was due to begin, he announced that he would also be handing out the passwords to all his online accounts to the public. The kind of “bad data” which randomly hacked accounts would show would actually make him less traceable than a radio silence – a bit like how words written over other words mask them more than simply erasing them or scribbling on them would.

Accept that it probably won’t work

Even if you managed all this, the likelihood is that some of your daily activities would still leave a trace online. Most jobs require internet activity, if not an internet presence. Bank accounts are, let's face it, fairly necessary. And even Radiohead will, I’m willing to bet, reappear on the internet soon after their album arrives.

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.