Urban Big Data Centre

Lead Research Organisation: University of Glasgow
Department Name: School of Social & Political Sciences

Abstract

The Urban Big Data Centre aims to promote innovative research methods and the use of big data to improve social, economic and environmental well-being in cities. Traditionally, quantitative urban analysis relied on data designed for research purposes: Census and social surveys, in particular. Their qualities are well understood and the skills needed for extracting knowledge from them widely shared by social researchers. With the arrival of the digital age, we produce an ever increasing volume of data as we go about our daily lives from physical sensors, business and public administrative systems, or social media platforms, for example. These data have the potential to provide valuable insights into urban life but there are many more challenges in extracting useful knowledge from them. Some are technical, arising from the volume and variety of data, and its less structured nature. Some are legal and ethical, concerning data ownership rights and individual privacy rights.

Above all, there are important social science issues in the use of big data. We need to shape the questions we ask of these data with an informed perspective on urban problems and contexts, and not have data drive the research. There is a need to ask questions about the data themselves and how they affect the resulting representations of urban life. And there is a need to examine the ways in which these data are taken up by policy makers and used in decision making.

UBDC is a research centre which brings together an outstanding multi-disciplinary team to address these complex and varied challenges. We are a unique combination of four capacities: social scientists with expertise from a range of disciplinary backgrounds relevant to urban studies; data scientists with expertise in programming, data management, information retrieval and spatial information systems, as well as in legal issues around big data use; a data infrastructure comprising a substantial data collection and secure data management and analysis systems; and an academic group with strong connections to policy, industry and civil society organisations developed over the course of phase one and wider work.

In the second phase, our objectives are to maximise the social and economic benefits of activities from phase one. We will do this in particular through partnerships with industrial and government stakeholders, working together to produce analyses which meet their needs as well as having wider application. We will continue to publish world-leading scientific papers across a range of disciplines. We will work to enhance data collections and develop new methods of analysis. We will conduct research to understand the quality of these new data, how well they represent or misrepresent particular aspects of life, and how they are and could be used by policy makers in practice. Lastly, we will build capacity for researchers and others to work with this kind of data in future.

Our work programme comprises four thematic work packages. One focuses on understanding the sustainability, equity and efficiency of urban transport systems and on evaluating the impacts on these of infrastructure investments. There is a particular focus on public transport accessibility as well as active travel and hence health outcomes. The second examines the changing residential structure of cities or patterns of spatial segregation, and their consequences for social equity, with a particular focus on the re-growth of private renting. The third studies how urban systems shape skills development and productivity and, in particular, how the combination of home and school environments combine to shape secondary educational attainment. The fourth explores how big data are being taken up by policy makers. It asks what the barriers are to more effective use of these data but also whether they distort the picture of needs which a public body may form.

Planned Impact

In line with our overall aim, we will work to maximise impacts from our research, new datasets we produce and the development of novel methods or new applications of existing ones. In doing so, we will demonstrate the value of big data and urban analytics. The intended beneficiaries continue to be extremely diverse (businesses, small and large; government/public bodies; and civil society), both national and international. For phase two, we concentrate our efforts on industrial and public sectors, as outlined below.

Industrial impact
In phase one, UBDC supported or collaborated with 33 private companies working in information management, mobility and transport, housing and geospatial data infrastructure, among others. Our next phase involves a number of new and continuing collaborations as noted in the Work Packages (WP), with potential benefits for those firms but also for the wider markets in which they operate.
In WP1, for example, our analysis of rail data will be of direct benefit to our industrial partner as new knowledge aims to support their activities to increase ridership. The knowledge and methods we develop will be relevant across the industry as well as being of value to public bodies such as rail regulators and transport planners more generally. Our efforts to understand cycling behaviour in response to infrastructure investment will benefit the growing bike sharing industry, as well as public bodies responsible for infrastructure investment and agencies with a remit for promotion of active travel.
In WP2, we are working with two property listings firms to better understand the qualities of their data and enrich them through integration with other sources. These engagements offer direct benefits to them in terms of the value of their data assets. Our results will benefit the wider private renting industry (landlords and agents) through a better understanding of this emerging, dynamic sector. Research in partnership with the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe) will shed light on the impacts of recent regulatory changes, enabling market actors to take a more informed position in relation to these.

Impact for government and public bodies
In phase one, UBDC worked with 17 government and public bodies at UK, devolved, regional and local tiers. We sought to produce positive impacts in specific policy domains (housing and planning, transport, health and social care, education) and we engaged at a more strategic level to support efforts by city governments in the UK and internationally to develop urban analytics initiatives. We will extend this strategy in phase two.
In discussing industrial impact, we have already identified a number of areas where we will seek parallel impacts on public policy. In WP3, we will produce new knowledge on the gaps in educational attainment from school and neighbourhood, with widespread application within educational policy at national and local levels. We will cast new light on the relatively neglected area of educational careers within FE and the extent to which these contribute to filling regional skills gaps in key sectors such as engineering and construction.
In WP4, we will provide new understanding of how online reporting tools represent (or misrepresent) citizens' needs to public bodies. This knowledge has very widespread application in enabling local authorities and other public bodies to use such tools in ways which support fairer and more efficient distribution of resources, rather than undermining them. Other work in this stream will support efforts to make urban big data more useable and useful by enhancing data standards, continuing work from phase one.
At the strategic level, we will work with Glasgow and Edinburgh City Deals to help them identify how big data and urban analytics can inform the monitoring and evaluation of their major investment programmes, with potential wider value for other City Deals and urban authorities more generally.

Publications

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