In an article published today in Wired.com, IBM’s John Tolva poses a fascinating question. What if we could take all the abstractions of a modern city – the movement of goods, the education, public safety, and utilities that strengthen or weaken it – and turn them into insights?
This is becoming possible thanks new software tools – many of them free and open to the public — that enable city managers and citizens to explore and analyze a city’s data, compare it to other cities, and draw new conclusions that had previously been obscured. One example is City Forward, a new interactive tool from IBM that can be used to gather, compare, analyze, visualize, and discuss statistical trends for cities all over the world.
For example, City Forward can help analyze data on bridge and tunnel use and compare it to public transit ridership trends, air quality measurements, employment levels and many other issues. This allows citizens and city officials to form new judgments about how once-controversial and abstract ideas such as traffic congestion pricing might be approached anew, supported by a clearer way to measure and demonstrate the positive effects on the quality of life in their city.
The need to improve city life has never been more urgent. Our cities face a paradox today. Their populations are growing at the same time that their budgets are shrinking. For the first time, more than 50 percent of the world’s population now lives in cities. In the last decade, large metropolitan areas in the U.S. grew by a combined ten percent – nearly double the rate of the rest of the country. Our large metro areas now house two-thirds of America’s total population and have become the dominate forces in our economy and society. Meanwhile, declines in revenue and escalating fixed costs for things like pensions and health care are crippling our cities. According to the National League of Cities, city financial officers are experiencing the largest spending cuts and loss of revenue in a quarter century.
Thanks to a preponderance of data and an expanding ecosystem of applications that make it more useful, insightful and actionable, cities can begin to solve this dilemma. They can take the first steps in understanding the abstractions that have always made city life so vibrant. And they can develop insights that will lead to better decision making and ultimately benefit the public good.