Why big data firms are missing out on a potential market: urban sustainability

ImageThe City of San Francisco has mapped all the trees as part of an effort to map and illustrate the health, water, air quality, and economic benefits of trees. One such site showing these benefits is UrbanForestMap (http://urbanforestmap.org/)

Here’s a video explaining what they do:

One thing it should work on is the communications, public relations, and social media, because as an organization which prides itself as a medium for citizen participation. 

  • The Facebook page only has about 900 followers, its Twitter page has about 730 followers, and its Google Plus has only 15 followers, while the City of San Francisco has 825,863 people. In addition, as of today, the last time the FB page was updated was in April 2012.
  • Getting me to go outside to figure out what tree is growing outside, mapping the tree on the website, while a simple easy task, is not a priority for some people, and you need to sell its importance to people in a way people can understand, relate to, and empathize with. 
  • Communicating to the right audience means that you know how to target the people with the right skill-set to improve urban sustainability. For example, big data firms and tech-savy entrepreneurs have barely scratched the surface in terms of tackling urban sustainability. This is a potential market that they are missing out on.

Currently, cities pay consultants to write reports which guide economic and community development (in other words, how cities will look like in 20 or 30 years):


Planning consultants write in large 90 page reports about how a city and particular area will be, how many people will be living near BART, how many people will be working in an area, or where to put parks or plan for open spaces where people will hang out.

First, a majority of people (urban planners even admit this) don’t read these reports.

I argue that big data can empower a generation of people, because by data, you have a medium and are able to tell a story and communicate to a larger audience. Reaching out to this scale means you can influence and create new experiences, inspire others, and change the way we see the world. Big data can be as much as an art.

With big data, as well as a improved communications and public relations strategy, we can empower consumers, and inspire them to take action that improves the quality of life not only for themselves but for the planet.  Imagine impacting 820,000 people in San Francisco.

As one commenter to this video states:

 While many countries publish some of their data to public, it is mostly in document, web page, reports format which is also not linked to other set of information coming even from their own source next time.

What is needed that this is provided as raw data having linkages to other known data sets at least in ministry/ department with a provision of adding new linkages by other departments/ ministeries/ public at large.

This has power to trigger new questions connecting different fields of studies and allowing us to see how new solutions can be built with combined knowledge of many.

Dr. APJ Kalam (Ex-President of India) has proposed to buld a World Knowledge Platform to leverage combined knowledge of all nations to solve world most challenging problems.


Can big data guide city planning?

datasfThe City of San Francisco has released a open data platform where techno-savy  users and firms can use the data to create stunning products and visualizations that help inform the city about how to improve urban issues in the city.

I believe the key is that th(at) cit(ies) should aggressively market to big data firms, as they have the expertise to use technology to better understand how cities work, and guiding better city planning that improves the quality of life of citizens and the planet.

At the same time, big data firms (and big data like projects such as the Urban Tree Map) can communicate with their audience about how to improve the quality of life of the planet, because a better planet means a better quality of life for individuals in the world in the long run. 


How do you communicate sustainability to other people?

step 3 conclusion

Here’s an exercise for you.

If you were an urban planner, how do you communicate the public health benefits of living in a city where everything is within walking distance in a way that does not turn off the audience or use jargon? How can you connect with your audience.

Hint: This has to be something you can say in 1 minute or less.

How do you argue against Americans who think the US is the best?

Answer by Florence Lince:

Knowing that only 30% of the American population has a passport it helps to ask a question to these people first; Do you have a passport and have you ever used it?  If they say yes I ask to where and how often have they traveled.  Their comments are then more relevant to the argument.
I have also seen that the longer your family roots have been placed in the US – lets say you are the 12th generation of your family here in the US – the less likely one is to want to travel.  There is no family pull or feeling of needing to see where your ancestors came from because they came from the US.  The US is also a very vast and large country and it could take a lifetime to explore it well. 
And cost is a factor as to why so many do not leave the US and hence have a distorted view of the US importance.  It is how they treat the tourists however that gives the US its worst reputation.  Many American's are not tolerant of many people who come here to visit and treat them badly.  I have seen Americans treat locals badly in foreign countries and I have apologized for them and explained that not all Americans are like this.  Most people know this to be true. 
Fear and language ignorance are also factors.  Because so many people in the US do not speak a second language they will not travel to a location where they cannot communicate.  This explains why tourists fill those guided and escorted tours because someone will be there to take care of them.  It is the only way many of these people would travel – and at least they are traveling. 
So arguing with those with no passport is a complete waste of time.  Better to travel – meet new and interesting people – and have great and wonderful conversations about important topics concerning the world, because you have seen the world, and it matters to you.
Thus we see that those who have never traveled outside of the US have a very distorted view of the US and its importance.  And how can one argue their place in the world if one has never traveled the world…perhaps another question for another time.

View Answer on Quora

Is public transportation a real solution to reduce air pollution in big cities?

Answer by Francis Chen:

As touched upon already, air pollution is a consequence of massive resource consumption, and there are different sources of air pollution, not just cars.

However, I'm going to speak from a North American perspective (Hong Kong, as Andrew Leyden points out, has different sources of air pollution, given 90% of people take transit there already).

I argue that land use, not public transit, plays a bigger factor in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Without proper land use, you can have lots of buses go any where, but they wouldn't be able to meet the right ridership since everything is far apart.

As Seth Andrzejewski points out, land use is very critical. Your goal: you want to be able to reduce the travel time from your origin to your place of destination, so you choose the mode of transportation that is the least costly, from a time and monetary perspective. You want to reduce the time it takes to take to get to work or buy groceries.

For example, if you can make the places between where you live and the places you want to go (grocery store, work, park, etc.) closer to each other, you make it a lot easier to depend on the car, since things are not spread out. If things are too spread out, the Golden Triangle of Transit here fails:

From Jarrett Walker, international transit consultant: (Human Transit: basics: conceptual triangles).

In short, without the right density and walk-ability, transit services can't justify frequent services (buses coming every five minutes!) or have the right ridership to meet the service. This is why in a lot of suburbs, you have buses coming every 30 minutes or hour: it is much more cheaper for them to take that route because not many people take transit.

Without proper land use planning (which is a whole other subject on its own, as the comments on Seth's post point out), like in the US, you have a lot of suburbs, which makes it more convenient to drive than to take transit. 

Jarrett Walker, from his book, Human Transit: How clearer thinking about public transit can enrich our communities and our lives (see here: human transit (the book): introduction ) notes that if land use ("development") is spread out, transit would not be very efficient:

The red line is the transit line, the dark purples are the first and last stops, and the light purple are the intermediate stops.

If we pretended, this was a suburb, having cul-de sacs (in light purple) would not be very efficient for transit vehicles because  the bus/rail would have to go through every destination. It would take a really long time for that red line to go to every place.

This is a different transit line, but much more straight forward.
Now, with the proper land use that is very dense in one line, this can be a very efficient transit line. This is key: proper land use. You can still have a straight line but it can be located in the suburbs, and it would be an inefficient transit line because there is not enough ridership

Here's an example of density, visualized, from the architecture firm, Perkins & Will, of a urban design plan for Vancouver, Canada, I believe.

Here's another similar image of Vancouver, probably at a different location:

Watch that transit line pass through that dense neighborhood! With the amount of development, it will have a justifiable amount of ridership to justify frequent service along the line to take transit!


So, in short, land use, not public transit, in North America, has a greater factor in influencing greenhouse gas emissions.

Note: you might have noticed that I was sort of repetitive in different ways. It is really important to be clear when discussing or talking about transportation and the language of transportation because people interpret things different ways. That's why I provided lots of different visuals from different sources to help put everything in context. 

The concept of density, for example, is a very broad concept. Does it mean 5 story, 10 story, 80 story (Manhattan), etc. There are different ways of measuring high density. Similarly, the concept of mixed land use or closer land uses is also very hard to visualize and thus has to be explained in depth to the reader.

This is the role of urban planners, transportation engineers, and also to a growing extent, the smart cities / big data movement, which I talk more about in this article: http://www.quora.com/Smart-Citie…

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