Cities Are Watching You—Urban Sciences Graduates Watch Back
IT IS NOT so often that a major university like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology discovers a new kind of science. But in the fall, the university will launch a novel sort of program, an undergraduate major called Urban Science that combines data analytics training with the sort of informed policy knowhow offered in typical Urban Studies programs.
Yes, it will be a science, with hypotheses that can be measured by data and evaluated with software engineering tools by smartypants computer scientists. But the new program will also attempt to honor the actual fleshy people with hopes, fears, and questions about how the places where they make their homes might adapt to the future.
Wifi networks, smart traffic lights, security cameras, cell phones, Ubers, and yeah, electric scooters throw off truckloads of data about American cities. Meanwhile, two-thirds of humanity is expected to live in urban places by 2050. Students will be asked to examine patterns mined from data, explain them in ways any urban dweller can understand, and transform them into effective, helpful policy—the guidelines that make cities go. Time to make all that information work for residents, instead of the other way around.
Urban science is a budding discipline that has exploded over the past half-decade, and multidisciplinary programs have cropped up at mostly private institutions like New York University, Northeastern University, the University of Southern California, and Carnegie Mellon. In some places, it goes by “urban informatics,” in some, “spatial science,” but taken together, these departments ask: What can researchers glean from all this new data? What can’t they? And how much can that new knowledge really improve people’s lives?
Those in charge of the MIT program, officially a collaboration between the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, don’t necessarily envision their students as future city planners. They want to attract kids who might otherwise go straight to the sciences, but who also want some context about where the numbers go once they’ve organized, cleaned, and crunched them.
“At MIT, the computer science degree is one of the more popular ones, because people feel like this is the language and tool of the future,” says Eran Ben-Joseph, the head of the university’s Urban Studies and Planning Department. “So for us, the question is, ‘How do you make a better connection between the training and computation, and what the implication of the work will be, for communities, for policies?”
In other words: How do you create a good citizen and a good computer scientist?
Good Citizenry 101
According to those who run urban data analytics programs across the country, building a thoughtful city resident isn’t as easy as forcing annoyed and sleep-deprived youngsters to pass an ethics class. To give students experience making good decisions with data, MIT and other universities offering new, urban science-like courses stress partnerships with cities, which give them access to real data in exchange for their consultation help.
For example: For MIT’s Underworlds project, a collaboration between its urban studies staff and a computational microbiology lab, researchers built robots that search through Boston-area sewage for (literal) raw data about drug use and chronic diseases. Computer scientists use that information to understand what populations are suffering from specific health problems, to predict future outbreaks, and to inform public health policy. Other potential MIT projects include crafting transportation systems that get people to their jobs efficiently, but serve all members of the community and their different work schedules.
Or take students in USC’s spatial sciences program. Through a partnership with the Los Angeles mayor’s office, its students have analyzed data, then created visualizations of where crime is most affecting the city. The university hopes its students will uncover important patterns, but it also wants to teach them to translate those patterns into words or infographics that all citizens can understand.
“We have sensors and satellites flying all around the sky; we’re awash in data,” says John Wilson, a sociologist who directs the university’s Spatial Sciences Institute. “Now we need to make sense of it.”
The trick, however, is to teach students how to handle data, as well as how to avoid worshipping its results blindly. Northeastern University’s urban informatics master’s program started admitting students in 2015 and now graduates about 10 a year. It often dispatches them on data-inflected missions that take them to the streets of Boston. There, they observe the sources of their data (and its limitations), and talk to the people generating it. “It’s not just being great at analytics,” says Daniel O’Brien, an assistant professor in the university’s public policy school who teaches in the program. “It’s being able to know which questions to ask and answer and how they fit into the long run of what cities have been, and what they’re going to be.”
UP, Up, and Away
After graduation, students from MIT, like those from other, similar programs, are likely to head to a few big tech companies, or least a few big companies that use a lot of tech: Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, GM, Boeing, Northrop Grumman. Within those shiny office walls, workers are now beginning to question the ethics, sagacity, the point, really, of the work they do—how their data-mashing is affecting their fellow humans out in the world. That’s the point of an urban science degree, too.
Meanwhile, city governments scramble to find talent to help them use and evaluate the sorts of data they increasingly demand from companies like Uber, Lyft, and e-scooter startups. They cannot offer salaries that complete with the ride-hailing startups and the Googles. But an increased supply of workers—the kids who are interested in civics and willing to go through the urban programs and then fan out into city governments—can help.
As Amazon pushes cities to out-concession each other for a new headquarters, Elon Musk prepares to build mass transit in Chicago, and dockless bike-share companies seek sidewalk domination, the idea of combining big cities with big data seems more relevant than ever. And the nascent urban sciences major suddenly seems much more important.