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Using Big Data to Improve Cities
Using Big Data to Improve Cities

When Baby Boomers were growing up, the only really large data sets they encountered were packaged and left on doorsteps: telephone books. More recently, financial markets, large array telescopes, particle accelerators, and the NSA were the primary generators of “Big Data.” But over the past decade as sensors have become cheaper and more powerful and as the wireless Internet has expanded, huge troves of data are being created almost everywhere.

Cities are among the most popular places where these ubiquitous sensors are being deployed. Chicago, San Jose, Atlanta, New York, and Portland are now using state-of-the- art technologies to gather and archive data from myriad sources to combat climate change, improve public health, reduce crime, manage transportation systems, and more. While this data explosion opens doors to new and unseen opportunities for cities to address complex urban issues, managing and deriving meaningful information from such vast databases presents a number of unique challenges.

Computer scientist Dr. Kristin Tufte knows how difficult working with high volume, high velocity, and high variety “big data” is. A Research Assistant Professor in PSU’s departments of Computer Science and Engineering, and Civil and Environmental Engineering, she investigates methods of processing streams of data from sources too large and unruly for traditional analytical methods to make sense of. Her research for local, state, and federal agencies and organizations such as the Intel Science and Technology Center for Big Data (based at MIT) and the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center spurs innovations in big data management, storage, and query that improves the way we turn data into information and knowledge.

One of Dr. Tufte’s many research interests is developing and deploying innovations in data stream processing to transportation systems. She has partnered with Oregon’s and Washington’s Departments of Transportation, the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council, the Portland Bureau of Transportation, and others to provide improved transportation measurements across the region, including the real-time estimates of travel time seen on the digital signs recently added to freeways throughout the Portland-Vancouver area.

A researcher for the Transportation Research and Education Center at PSU, Dr. Tufte manages and maintains PORTAL, the official data archive for our region’s transportation agencies.  This real-time, multi-modal transportation information streams in from roadways and vehicles all around the area. The website provides the public with snapshots of traffic movement on major roadways, travel time, transit service, and more. Transportation officials, meanwhile, use PORTAL to improve the ways they assess, manage, and model the transportation system in a city that can claim it has both the 10th-worst for traffic in the nation according to the TomTom Traffic Index and the highest percentage of bike commuters for a large American city.

Cities and metropolitan regions that deploy information and communication technologies to improve infrastructure management are frequently referred to as “smart cities.” Here at PSU, Dr. Tufte is one of a handful of researchers taking part in smart city research projects related to the MetroLab Network recently announced at the White House. The Network is an innovative, collaborative coalition of university-city partnerships from around the country that have agreed to research, develop, and deploy technologies and analytically-based solutions to overcome challenges facing our nation’s urban regions.

Here in Portland, Dr. Tufte will participate in a public-private partnership between the City of Portland, PSU, and Intel to install state-of-the-art sensor technology along the proposed Powell-Division bus rapid transit corridor. The project will monitor air quality using inexpensive remote sensing technology, traffic data collected by the city of Portland, and the impact of the new bus line on the character of neighborhoods it passes through.

“There is a lot of traffic and air quality data already collected along the Powell corridor,” Dr. Tufte said. “The plan with this project is to install a number of sensors that will gather air quality data at multiple locations along the corridor and then to start comparing the air quality and traffic data to see if there is a correlation between the two. Whether we find a relationship or not, we are collecting data city policy makers and planners will be able to use to make more well-informed decisions relating to the city’s transportation system.”

As Internet, marketing, financial, and other organizations increasingly use big data to their benefit, so too are cities beginning to utilize data streaming technologies to assist their communities. At PSU, Dr. Tufte’s research increases our capacity to harness data to improve how cities take on challenges such as modeling critical systems, combating climate change, and improving quality of life.