Cities no longer need to fly blind

Fri, 2018-11-16 17:20 -- Adam Beck

In honour of Smart Cities Week Australia the Smart Cities Council Emerging Innovators are reflecting on the four themes: connected, aware, accelerate and compassion. This week’s post on the theme of ‘aware’ from Emerging Innovator Claire Daniel reflects that, for the first time in history, smart cities are letting city officials know whether what they are doing is working and why.

How much do the people running your cities really know about what happens within them? I came to realise very early in my planning career that the answer is always probably a lot less than you think. For instance, my assumption that the local council knew which businesses operated in the city evaporated when the first job they gave me involved weeks of googling phone numbers to ask.

Keeping track of a city has historically been a monumental task. Even in a small city if you sent someone around with a clip board to count every house, the data would be hopelessly out of date by the time they were done. Up until very recently though this is literally what had to be done and, on occasion throughout history, such monumental surveys have been undertaken. One of the most famous efforts is Charles Booths’ Inquiry into Life and Labour in London which spanned more than a decade from 1886 to 1903 and featured maps detailing every building in inner London along with the social economic status of its residents. Although impressive it is not surprising that these efforts have been few and far between.


Combined ‘Maps Descriptive of London Poverty’ by Charles Booth (1886-1903), each colour describes a different socio-economic class from the least well off (black and blue) through to the middle class (red) and wealthy (yellow).

Source: London School of Economics and Political Science


Recent digital technology nevertheless reduces the amount of effort involved. Organisations around the world are rapidly advancing image recognition technology to extract and count the number of features, such as houses, from satellite imagery. It is not perfect yet, but it is a long step forward from something that was not possible ten years ago. A city is more than the outline of its buildings though and other datasets such as public transport, business, land use and development data are also starting to come together with the help of increased computing power.

My research ‘Towards the Development of a Monitoring System for Planning Policy’ published as a chapter in ‘Planning Support Science for Smarter Urban Futures’ in 2017 demonstrates how this type of data can be brought together in a web application to show how well a city meets the goals outlined in its plan.


Left: Number of public transport services per stop from 06:00 to 09:00 on a Wednesday, City of Chicago

Right: New development sites - distance along road network to a frequent public transport stop

Data sourced from Chicago Transit Authority GTFS and City of Chicago Building Permits.


Nevertheless, there is still a long way to go. For instance, the data used and generated by city officials is still stored in many different ways. The software used to process development approvals is not the same between local councils and even inside a local council there may be different systems for property and zoning information, development approvals and building certificates. A lot of work still needs to be done to develop standards for this type of data if we are to actually keep track of our growing cities, and the infrastructure they really need. As both a planner and data analyst I am committed to this cause and would love to hear from anyone who wants to help.


Claire Daniel is a Consultant at SGS Economics and Planning working across urban planning, data analytics and software development. She also writes an occasional blog about issues concerning data and urban planning

The views expressed therein are entirely their own.