Who are the leading experts in the world on smart cities and data-driven urban planning?

Answer by Francis Chen:

First, I'd like to say: data visualization peeps and aspiring entrepreneurs, take note!

Carlo Ratti of the MIT Sensable Cities Lab (http://senseable.mit.edu/) has done some amazing work in terms of data visualization and smart cities.  Check out their website, because they have been cranking out projects for about several years now.

The MIT Sensable Cities Lab does a lot of work on using "a vast system of cameras, communication devices, microcontrollers and sensors over our environment, enabling entirely new ways to imagine, monitor, and understand our cities."

I wrote a similar post here about some of their work:
Data Visualization: What are some of the best ways to visualize time?

Here's a video:
They've recently opened up a research lab, in collaboration with the National University of Singapore: http://senseable.mit.edu/livesin….

However, from past experience, lots of the data-driven, smart cities movement has been very small scale and focused on a few institutions.

From my ala mater, UC Berkeley, UrbanSim is a software simulation tool used to model transportation, land use, economic development, housing, etc. for metropolitan planning organizations in the US.
It definitely doesn't have the real time feel of MIT Sensable Cities (they don't depend on cell phones or cameras for example), but UrbanSim is definitely doing a lot in terms of using DATA to predict and measure how cities will look and be, as well as function in the next twenty or thirty years.

Given that we're in an era of climate change and sustainable cities, these sorts of softwares and technologies will become increasingly important in making sure we can measure how healthy our actions our to the planet as well as ourselves.

I see these as good business/market opportunities as city governments have to plan out how to make their cities livable, and these models will make sure cities are planned accurately based on the right data. 


However, there already is a lot of work that has been done in traffic/transportation planning.

The question is how to make this data and software more accessible to the general public.

Most of their software is only available to transportation/traffic planning engineers, and to a certain extent, some urban planners.  In addition, much of the user interface is very technical and intimidating, which is a turn off for a lot of people (and thus people are intimidated by lots of urban planning).

For example,

Lots of traffic modeling software looks like this (lots of transportation planning is used like this to plan for future infrastructure, by the way)

But, for the average person, it's really hard to relate to this sort of work. For somebody who's interested in the carbon emission output of this, or the impact of travel time in terms of traffic, times spent with family, housing costs, etc.

The Center for Neighborhood and Technology (http://htaindex.cnt.org/), an organization based in Chicago, has done an amazing job in collecting US Census Data from all metropolitan areas across the US, measuring housing and transportation costs, relative to income.

This issue is really important, especially in areas like the San Francisco Bay Area, where housing/transport costs are really hard and can limit how much disposable income a family could spend on, lets say leisure, recreation, health, education, food, etc.

Here's a link here: The H+T Affordability Index 2011

Columbia University also has a research institute that deals with data driven planning housed under the School of Architecture and Planning, known as the: Spatial Information Design Lab

Measuring CO2 Levels across Beijing during the Olympics.
However, I didn't see that many actual visuals in their website.


Finally, to give homage to a Bay Area native, lets not forget the indie data visualization experts; people who do data driven urban planning in their free time.

Eric Fischer has an amazing set of work on mapping/data visualizations on his flickr: Eric Fischer's photosets on Flickr

Anything from:

Mapping local/tourist activity in New York City using Flickr Geotags

To mapping pedestrian activity from BART stations to people's homes/work:

According to Fischer:

"Routes are approximate: shortest path from the trip origin to the station along TIGER (2010) roadways. Diagonals are especially suspect. BART passenger trip origins from the 2008 Station Profile Study, snapped to the nearest street corner."

P.S. This data is easily available on BART's website: Station Profile Study. The routes he made using Geographic Informations Systems Software (likely ArcGIS)

Race and ethnicity maps of Los Angeles:


I also subscribe to this YouTube channel which shows how frequent public transport is throughout major American and European cities. These were made using Google General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) data. I imagine lots of programming was involved in this:

Here's a day in the life of Washington DC Transit:

In terms of government institutions:

The City of San Francisco MTA recently created a smart parking program called SF Park, which basically prices parking by supply and demand (coined by parking guru and urban planning Professor Shoup from UCLA) based on sensors that have been installed throughout the City of San Francisco's off-street parking and parking structures. This is one of the most largest scale projects of its kind in the US, and was funded by the federal government.

For example, if a particular street corner does not have a lot of parking spaces, the price will increase by $0.25 or $0.50, depending on the amount of spaces left. Meanwhile, a street corner with lots of parking spaces will decrease its prices by the same amount (there's an algorathim which I'm not so sure how it works). Supply and demand, pricing parking at market prices, in action.

Given that parking takes up a lot of urban space in many urban/suburban areas, and urban space and parking spaces are limited, as well as a need for our cities to encourage more usage of public transit, this is a great way of using data to solve problems.

There is a lot of parking occupancy related data available on the SF Park website: Resources – SFpark

Here's a video explaining the process:

Here's the interface in detail:

Stamen Design (http://stamen.com/), based in San Francisco (Sha Hwang, please comment!) which does a lot of visualization work (not just cities; their clients have included MTV, MSNBC, SF MOMA, Schwab, Adobe, AirBnB, BMW, and MoveOn):

Oakland Crimespotting:

Mapping Google, Apple, eBay, Facebook, etc. buses from SF to Silicon Valley: (See the process explained here The City from the Valley: a commission for the Zero1 Silicon Valley Biennial)


I have more examples, but they'll come as the discussion progresses.

Several things to conclude with, from my experience and research:

  • These projects require cross-collaborations between different organizations and institutions. Academic institutions such as MIT and UC Berkeley for example have a great knowledge set of people/researchers who have a large knowledge set in these areas. In addition, lots of government / policy think tanks and other similar organizations are dying for good, accurate data (as well as how to measure and use it) to plan their cities to be more livable and healthy. Finally, the private sector is teeming with experts in data visualization/scientists/designers, software engineers, as well as people who are focusing on improving sensor/GPS technology.
  • It is not enough to know how to code/program/design or collect/visualize data. I really emphasize this particular point because I believe that a lot of particular social/political/economic issues will be ignored if the entire team of data visualists consist of just those experts. For example, I've seen a lot of data related to transportation because there has been a wealth of research on how to measure transportation (how frequent is the bus running, how accessible is transit from your house, etc.), but not enough data visualization relating to issues relating to: food security, health/exercise, the impact of restaurants/local food businesses in a local economy, the impact of parks in improving health and community friendships, etc. This sort of perspective requires a "very non-programming perspective"; in other words, hire economists, urban planners, architects, anthropologists, policy researchers, small business owners, etc. into your team!
  • Not all data is available. Government institutions don't release a lot of data to the public, or some data needs to be collected.
  • Lots of data is available, but it is left very unorganized and very un-user friendly. There is actually a lot of data readily available (i.e. think government websites, with those large PDFs).
  • With that being said, sensors/cameras/GPS, and other alternative means to collect data will becoming increasingly important in the future.
  • Hubs/innovation centers for these organizations will become increasingly important to provide an environment.

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Why Taiwan?

Misses walking down this alleyway

This is is a question I get asked a lot. I really can’t provide a simple answer for this question; I’m going to focus more on the personal growth, because I’ve fallen so in love with the island so much that I’ve developed a strong attachment to the place.

While my answers are simple, I feel like they make up a big chunk of what makes a meaningful life to me.

Language growth:

I really want to get to know the people, the culture, and to be able to comfortably read, write, speak, Chinese so that I can make friends who offer me different perspectives of the world. I want to be able to read and write, as well as translate comfortably, the music/art/design/literature/television/culture of Taiwan so I can share this to the rest of the world. I absolutely missed using Mandarin everyday, and want to continue using it on a day to day basis. To me, language growth is a big criteria of what makes a meaningful life because you learn to challenge your own assumptions about how you see the world through interacting with a different culture.


Taiwan’s snacking culture (and vegetarian culture!) is so amazing. I want to bring some of that back into the US, because I think this really helps contribute to the slow-paced lifestyle: there’s so much to eat and so many places to just sit down, relax, and food is a big part of that.

I’ve heard a lot about how Taiwanese vegetarian food is so amazing (compared to the US). I’ve considered wanting to become vegetarian, but the options here are not so great. Living in Taiwan, if I can eat lots of vegetarian food, I think I will easily be convinced to become vegetarian.


A big part of living a healthy lifestyle for oneself and for the planet is understanding one’s connection to nature. Taiwan is known for it’s beautiful, and easy proximity to nature! Once people have a very strong connection to nature, they will begin to have a greater appreciation of how to manage their natural resources and how to simplify their lives. It’s very refreshing: more cities in the United States need this stronger appreciation of nature.

Why do Chinese parents consider doctor, lawyer and accountant to be the “default” career for their children?

Answer by Francis Chen:

Having made the switch from engineering to urban planning in the past, I can heavily relate to this question as a 1st generation born Chinese-American. I’ll try to speak from my personal experience.

I’ve divided my story by:

  • My process of picking a “stable” major and why I switched.
  • How the Chinese mindset of choosing a major is different than in the US due to the poverty/competition in Asia
  • How choosing a liberal arts major made me a much more active, entrepreneurial job hunter than if I stuck with engineering.
  • My personal examples of how one can be entrepreneurial with job hunting as a liberal arts major.
  • How this entrepreneurial mindset is almost completely new to my parents, and how I conveyed it to my parents
  • My advice to those who are deciding between a “stable career” versus a “liberal arts path” in college.

Continue reading “Why do Chinese parents consider doctor, lawyer and accountant to be the “default” career for their children?”

Working abroad as an Overseas Chinese, and to those who are afraid to do it

I’ve bolded some points I will respond to from a New York Times article, Overseas Chinese, Foreigner at Home:

Cities like Beijing and Shanghai are increasingly home to overseas Chinese, as those of us of Chinese descent who are not citizens of China are known. By some estimates, more than 30 percent of the American citizens living in China are of Chinese ethnicity.

For hyphenated Chinese like me, living here presents challenges as well as attractions. The chance to explore our’s roots and discover a country radically different from the one left behind by our parents or grandparents can be as powerful a lure as the job opportunities offered by a rising China.

Yet expectations of some Chinese toward ethnically Chinese foreigners can be disconcerting. There are assumptions that someone who looks Chinese must speak fluent Mandarin and instinctively understand cultural norms that may be peculiar to the contemporary mainland. Both locals and foreigners can be unsure how to categorize us.

To the point of discover your roots as a way of going back to China:

I think this is a very challenging point to convey to a lot of my friends, even fellow Chinese-American friends of mine. My incentive is to really experience and understand a different culture (in this case, Chinese culture) to learn about how different people see the world, especially where my parents came from.

However, I often get challenged and asked a lot of questions: “What is the local salary there?” “What about your own career growth and professional growth, wouldn’t it get hampered by going back to China?” “How will you survive?” “What if you get manipulated, robbed, or attacked by the local culture?”

I believe this sets things in really crazy dichotomies. While salary is considered a factor (and there are definitely opportunity costs to going abroad, I cannot deny that; for example, unless you are working for a brand name, multi-national company, going abroad will have very different career directions than working in your home country), I believe these questions says a lot about ourselves:

We are essentially saying: if it is not related to your career, or it does not have a high monetary value, it is not worth pursuing.

Continue reading “Working abroad as an Overseas Chinese, and to those who are afraid to do it”

What are some ways in which Chinese society is better than American society?

Answer by Gabriel Butler:

There was a good article about what China has been doing right recently. One of the authors responded by making a list. Be sure to read the whole piece though. It's one of the best, most informative things I think I've ever read about China. (China: What’s Going Right?)

Here are the five things I agreed with the most from that list:

  • A culture of hard work, thrift, and diligence that emphasises the importance of education.
  • State atheism, broad state support of science over superstition and religion.
  • Real family values: China is a culture that supports families; you can take a baby anywhere and no one will give you nasty looks about crying, etc. 
  • Acknowledgement of climate change and environmental problems at highest levels of government.
  • Active state support for new energy and renewables.

There are a few things that I'd like to add to this list:

  • Public transportation: Even the poorest cities in China have public transportation systems that function better than those in most major American cities. You need to have a car in most American cities because you can't rely on public transportation. In my hometown of San Diego, I have to wait at least half an hour for a bus or a trolley to arrive and they never arrive on time. I went to college in Los Angeles and the situation was even worse. In Huanggang, Hubei, the most impoverished place I've been to in my life, buses came about every five minutes every day of the week. Public transportation in major Chinese cities like Shenzhen and Beijing is even better. The subway system in Beijing is heavily subsidized, so you can travel as far as you need to on only 2 RMB. Shenzhen's subway system charges by distance, but it's still pretty cheap. Also, subway stations in China are usually very, very clean.
  • Public safety: People generally aren't afraid to go out alone at night in China. This includes women. Chinese people aren't aren't afraid of getting shot either. Contrast that with the American crusade to arm as many people as possible in as many places as possible. That doesn't mean there isn't any violent crime here, but I like living in a country that isn't awash with guns because guns make violence worse than it has to be. (What's it like to live in a country with relatively strict gun control laws?)
  • Food: I look forward to every meal I have here, no matter how simple. China has an extremely rich culinary culture that will probably take a lifetime to explore. Also, I think the way Chinese people eat together is far superior to the way Americans eat together because Chinese people usually share everything at the table. When I go to a restaurant in America, I have a hard time picking what I want to eat because I want to try so many things, but I can only have one thing per visit. But in China, people order lots of dishes and share everything, so it's possible to try lots of things you're curious about or enjoy several things you know that you like in a single sitting.

No country is perfect and China certainly has its share of problems, but there are definitely a lot of things that are going quite well in China that aren't going so well in the US these days.

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Reflections & Productivity.

Now that school is over, thought I write down some things to prioritize in life.

  • Traveling: I really want to focus on spending more time in East Asia. Travelling really teaches me a lot about myself, and is so important in terms of growth, personal development, and being exposed to different perspectives in ideas.
  • Art as a tool in bridging communities and ideas: Note that I didn’t specifically say design (I believe design is a form of art). I believe in the power of art in connecting people, articulating and communicating, inspiring ideas, creating imagination, and getting people a chance to relax. This can take on ANY medium (illustration, watercolors, design, cooking, city planning, music, etc.)
  • Language learning: I want to continue improving my spoken Mandarin so that I can make friends and very strong relationships throughout my life that we can both be inspired by.