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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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.