The Big Idea: Using Cellphone Data for City Planning and Beyond

 When it comes to city planning, let’s face it—not the most compelling topic of discussion.

Well, I don’t know if that is so true anymore.

WI1015_cover.jpgWired’s recent cover story delved into how city planning has evolved over the centuries from an organic process to planning out of necessity to what it is a today: an elaborate, epic project by design. With cities becoming more and more tech reliant, much like its inhabitants, there is more demand for functionality in your environment. Functionality has also brought to attention sustainability, practicality, and even a touch of elegance. It’s as if Washingtonians, Bostonians, and Chicagoans want their cities retrofitted to look like Apple Stores. That might be asking a lot, but this new approach to city planning, which sounds a lot more like design rather than planning, carries a lot of merit, and changes are already underway even though you may not have noticed.

Seven scientists from MIT and Ericsson Research just recently collaborated on a study called “Visualizing Signatures of Human Activity in Cities across the Globe” where cities of the future will have their upgrades in infrastructure and—since we are talking about elegance in design—aesthetics based on cellular phone and mobile device analytics. It’s quite ingenious how this new approach will work. If you have a mobile device of any kind—an Android, an iPad, or another tablet or smartphone—you carry a high precision sensor. This sensor, especially if you are using apps that are location-reliant such as Google Maps, Waze, or Ingress, makes people easy to track. This may sound sinister, but city planners are taking this data and ask all kinds of questions about the dynamics behind these behaviors. When do people move the most during the day? Where is their final destination? Why are they heading along this particular route? What is the density of that particular area compared to another city block? So the MIT SENSEable City Laboratory in conjunction with the Ericsson Research Group carried out this study between April 2013 and January 2014 in New York, London, Hong Kong, and Los Angeles. Data was extrapolated and put into graphical form so that city planners could review it and, hopefully, find a pattern to how a city and its current design were being utilized. Planners noticed subtle but still distinguishable differences when and where people texted. Some cities experienced high volumes of text message in the morning while others in the evening. This may seem like trivial, innocuous data, but revealed to city planners was the evolution of density within the city. Where are people when they are sharing data, what is needed in that area to make people more comfortable, and what services can be brought into that area to make people comfortable. This is a whole new way to improve infrastructure in cities as well as design new block areas for future cities. The information is there so they might as well use it.

 Aerial View Decending into Cleveland, Ohio with River

So remember the next time you Instagram that great meal or text a friend where the best place is to meet you for a cup of coffee, you may be doing your part to make the city a better place for tomorrow.



shurtz.jpgA research physicist who has become an entrepreneur and educational leader, and an expert on competency-based education, critical thinking in the classroom, curriculum development, and education management, Dr. Richard Shurtz is the president and chief executive officer of Stratfdord University. He has published over 30 technical publications, holds 15 patents, and is host of the weekly radio show, Tech Talk. A noted expert on competency-based education, Dr. Shurtz has conducted numerous workshops and seminars for educators in Jamaica, Egypt, India, and China, and has established academic partnerships in China, India, Sri Lanka, Kurdistan, Malaysia, and Canada.