Big Data Shows That Rushing City-Dwellers Aren’t All Work, No Play

Big Data Shows That Rushing City-Dwellers Aren’t All Work, No Play

An MIT study used anonymized phone data and found one-fifth of urban travel was social in nature.

Pedestrians in Harvard Square (Photo by Chensiyuan)

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City-dwellers have a reputation for moving at a fast pace, but where is your zoom taking you? According to a new MIT study, one-fifth of your trips are social in nature. The study used anonymized phone data because, unlike other kinds of data, it can be used to reconstruct people’s locations and their social networks. (The data comes from three cities in Europe and South America.)

“There are a lot of people who need to have estimates of how people move around cities: transportation planners, and other urban planners,” says Jameson Toole, a PhD student in MIT’s engineering systems division, and one of the authors of a newly published paper outlining the study’s results. “But a lot of data-driven models don’t take into account social behavior. What we found is that … if you are trying to estimate movement in a city and you don’t include the social component, your estimates are going to be off by about 20 percent.”

One-fifth of all travel is a lot, and planners who take this stat into consideration could build a better picture of how residents in a metropolitan area get around and why.

“Big data is amazing,” Toole says, “but this adds the context back into the social networks and movements.”

Some say “amazing,” some say “ugh.” This and similar studies — check out “What We Can Learn From 4 Cities’ Smartphone Data” — are part of the growing trend of using big data to examine (and plan for) urban life.

In Next City’s “Science of Cities” column, Henry Grabar recently wrote that “Americans seem much more alarmed by the collection of location data than other privacy breaches.” Brett Goldstein, an urban science fellow at the University of Chicago, told Grabar that there is a greater good to be considered and that planners may need to make their case to ward off Big Brother concerns. “When people provide information, they want to realize the benefit of the information,” he said.

Jenn Stanley is a freelance journalist, essayist and independent producer living in Chicago. She has an M.S. from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

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Tags: urban planningbig data

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