Posts Tagged ‘CASA’

Friday 20 April 2012, Senate House, University of London

By Koen van Dam

CASA, the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at UCL chose “Smart Cities: bridging physical and digital

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as the theme of their conference held at the Senate House in Central London on the 20th of April 2012. Smart cities and digital… of course DCE had to be there.

Prof Michael Batty, chair of the management board of CASA, opened the conference by going back 40 years in the past to highlight the many advances of the digital age, most notably the rise of the internet, and how they have changed life in cities. Batty went on to explain that cities can be considered as networks of connected computers, and that smart cities present planners with new challenges because they address the short term operation of the places we live in rather than long-term strategies. The question is now what the next 40 years will hold. The presentations at this conference might offer a glimpse of that future. The real challenge, according to Batty, is that after the transition from “real” to “digital”, we now have to move back from “digital” to “real” and to see the changes of digital services on daily life.

The first speaker of the conference was Prof Carlo Ratti, Director of MIT’s SENSEable City Lab. He provided an image which would turn out to be a metaphor central to the whole day: the idea that a F1 racing team can no longer just win races by having the best car and the best driver, but that real-time data processing of all things happening in the car and on the track is absolutely essential now. Bringing this back to cities: they have become control systems (also strengthening Batty’s claim about short term operation being more central). Prof Ratti spent most of his talk introducing wonderful examples of analysis of data, digital design and real applications, ranging from analysing telecom signals during the world cup football, measuring drought by counting green pixels in digital photos, interactive walls made of water to early prototypes of the Copenhagen Wheel, a way to store power in a bicycle while also providing the rider with real-time data on for example air quality. Finally, Ratti made very clear that in the past key publications were made by one author from one discipline, but that today the most influential articles are in fact written by many authors coming from various scientific backgrounds.

The other speakers of the day were all researchers at CASA. Jon Reades and Joan Serras gave a great overview of the analysis of transport data (e.g. Oyster journeys on London’s transport network) with many beatiful maps. James Cheshire and Martin Austwick looked at cycle hire schemes, showing how much we can learn and infer from just looking at the status of docking stations around the city without having to know exactly which trips were made. One of the key advantages of using OpenStreetMap (instead of for example Google maps) is that you get a lot more information about the usability of the roads for, for example, cyclists, and the team took this into account in their routing algorithms.

Next up was a slightly controversial, but highly interesting talk by Prof Sir Alan Wilson, who developed a model of the riots in London August 2011. Using epidemic models (c.f. Epstein) they try to replicate the attractiveness of certain site to rioters and looters, taking for example the number of police officers present into account to determine the chance for arrest. One of the members of the audience, quite rightfully, pointed out that in some riots a high police presence is actually the cause for escalation instead of serving as a way to keep people under control. Also, the highly political impact of research would make it hard to develop objective simulation models. Still, this was one of the few examples at the conference of using data to inspire predictive models and using them for decision support.

George MacKerron showed us Mappiness, a way to study how people feel in certain locations based on an iPhone app which asks people to state their own happiness after having been prompted at random times. Analysis of this data could show in which environment people feel most happy.

Richard Milton discussed data stores and real-time data, raising the all-important question of data analysis: how to find something you don’t know was there. Organising data by spatial elements, it becomes, for example, possible to overlay population density maps with energy infrastructures for gas and electricity, showing striking matches. Maptube a tool developed at CASA for mapping data sets and building mash-ups, was introduced after which Steven Gray took over the microphone to present another tool offered by CASA, namely GEMMA engine for mapping. The idea is that these tools could become a “Big Data Toolkit” for visualisation and analysis of data. As a perfect illustration of the kind of events we might be able to infer from data, a lady on the tube wondering “it’s not usually this busy, what happened??” made clear that we need predictions as well as data analysis to get a better overview of systems.

Andy Hudson-Smith, CASA director, showed the Tales of Things project, explained as the “Internet of Second-hand Things”, paraphrasing the concept of the Internet of Things. Oxfam used this approach in their charity shops, allowing people to tell stories about the objects they were donating.

The final speaker at the conference was mapping guru Oliver O’Brien. He showed the CityDashboard displaying in real-time a number of views of a city, enabling the user to discover if there is something “wrong” (e.g. by linking travel disturbances, weather and popular news items) and help to make the right decisions on for example departure time or routing. Perhaps a bit disappointingly, the dashboard does not contain any “intelligence” or predictions, but the presentation gave a valuable overview of the data used as well as the standards in which they are made available, and the API would enable others to build on top of this dashboard by accessing the same information. Furthermore, Oliver highlighted that in order to compare different cities, more standards are required.

During lunch and tea breaks, participants were able to see the brilliant visualisations, apps and games developed by the CASA researchers up close and personal. Many of the stands were interactive, and we flapped our arms as we flew over London, we watched air planes circle over the city, placed police units in riot hot spots, looked at agent-based models of people moving about, and studied how pedestrians changed their behaviour as we adjusted the urban footprint of their virtual world using wooden blocks. Furthermore, it was a chance to stare at the recently released map of every bus trip in London and several other impressive visualisations at the border of art and science.

The conference ended with a panel discussion, in which several of the speakers took place to discuss issues such as which real insights can we get from visualisation and which sectors they predict would be the next big application after transport (which was clearly the most studied subject). In answering these questions, the panel members discussed the gap between sensing to activating and put forward health and justice (Alan Wilson), education (Ratti) and retail (Batty) as future domains to study.

On a final note, two statements of great importance to our Digital City Exchange programme were made during the panel discussion. Batty stressed that while we have a lot of data, we still know very little about the processes underlying decisions and actions of people. Hudson-Smith then said that what is needed next is an integrated model bringing together things that happen in different sectors. We are working on it!




Open Data: Powering the Information Age

February 29, 2012
by Claire Thorne

Technology Visionaries RAEng lecture series

Wednesday 22 February 2012, the Royal Society, London

By Claire Thorne and Koen van Dam

Unsure of how many notable FREng’s to expect in the audience, we arrived at the Royal Society (the current base for the RAEng during their refurbishment). With twenty-four FREng’s on the delegate list, including one on stage, we weren’t disappointed (but possibly just a little underdressed!).

The lecture by Prof Nigel Shadbolt FREng (Prof of Artificial Intelligence, University of Southampton) was part of the RAEng’s Technology Visionaries series and promised a whistle-stop tour through the vast topic that is Open Data.

Presenting in his current Government role as co-director of the Open Data Institute (ODI)

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(along with WWW inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee) Nigel set the scene by highlighting the historical significance of data (c.f. the Copernican revolution and the realisation that cholera is spread by contaminated water). He went on to sail through current innovation and the big issues surrounding: open data, smart cities, linked open data (and his 5-star rating for the release and structuring of data, open standards, unique resource identifiers and linking data) the latest UK Government developments, and data visualisation.

Open Data and the power of the crowd

Nigel illustrated the power of open data using the standard examples of:
•    the Government’s open data initiative and the website;
•    the London DataStore (“open the data and the apps will follow”);
•    the variety of ways Ordnance Survey’s OpenData is already being utilised;
•    the exercise of producing a Postcode Paper, with content generated using illegally reproduced, but so-called ‘open’ Government data (preceding the website).

One of his more inspiring examples of using open data for real-world societal and often unexpected impact was the mapping of earthquake-hit Port-au-Prince. Within days of the earthquake, the first detailed map of the city was produced for Open Street Map, via the power of the crowd. Open data does not just work one way, for people to consume; it also allows members of the general public to contribute and to improve data sets.

Open Data and smart cities

There was some mention of research on smart cities and, in particular, reference to UCL’s research in this area, the CASA group headed up by Prof Michael Batty. Nigel suggested that cities were one of the clearest examples of places where open data is collected and used.

The evolution of the humble mash-up through to complex data visualisation was demonstrated by examples of a UK crime heat map as well as combining data-sets on cycle hire and pollution. If you’re looking for a striking example of how this can impact our lives, check out the local crime and policing website, for England and Wales. Thanks to the ‘opening up’ of data on this platform (and therefore the plethora of opportunities for useful applications to be built on top of the data which followed) police officers now have a better view of crime, than they had of the same data set while it was closed.

For anyone interested in open data and cities, that the UK’s first Open-Data Cities Conference will be taking place in Brighton on 20 April 2012.

The web of linked open data

Nigel discussed the concept of the semantic web, thought to be the next step forwards from the WWW in which documents (and data) are linked – but now in a way that is ‘computer-understandable’. The more recent view of this concept is to consider instead a web of data. In principle it’s the same idea as the semantic web, but the web of data better captures the concept of interlinked sets of data. The DBpedia project is a clear example of how data from the better-known ‘-edia’, Wikipedia, can be structured, categorised and interlinked. Nigel showed us a graph of the network effect of such structured data, where more and more resources can be linked, greatly improving the power of the whole.

Note that the lecture’s URI is to be confirmed…

Citizen Science

The field of citizen science – the seemingly limitless opportunities it offers the public to engage with technology and repurpose data, and for creative design and education – is an area Nigel referred to during the Q&A as particularly exciting. Although he had little time to go into this in detail, he did flash up a slide featuring the Galaxy Zoo iPhone App (based on the success of Galaxy Zoo) during the lecture… co-developed by a former colleague from Imperial College London’s Astro group, Dr Joe Zuntz!

The latest UK Government developments

Nigel raised new infrastructure requirements and issues of security and privacy amongst his concerns, or indeed areas to focus on, for the future (c.f. a book Nigel co-authored The Spy in the Coffee Machine: The End of Privacy as We Know It).

Following on from issues of security and privacy, the BIS ‘midata’ project is working with retailers, telecomms and energy companies to explore issues surrounding the use and control of individual’s personal data. The midata aim is to return the economic value of the individual’s data back to the consumers. (Note the synergies with Digital City Exchange’s research and our focus on new business opportunities, jobs and growth).

Who’s the ‘winner’ of open data?

It was unfortunate that the evening’s ‘in conversation with’ part focused more on the future challenge for the UK education system in equipping employees with the necessary technology/logical-thinking skills, and less on Nigel’s ‘vision’ of the future of data, its use(s) and its potential impacts.

Nigel was however given the chance to elaborate on the impact of his vision when he was asked ‘who would be the winner of open data?’. He argued that the ‘winner’ is not only the governments who receive direct input from citizens and the “free” applications built on top of government data sets. He said the ‘winner’ is not only the businesses who can make better-informed decisions. He said the ‘winner’ is not only the people who get access to information which wasn’t previously available to them (and are therefore demanding/implementing greater transparency). Nigel said that all parties involved would benefit.

Of course the issue of privacy was addressed as it is hard to avoid in this context, but his enthusiasm and belief that this is the right path are both infectious and convincing. Unfortunately Nigel could not yet answer the question how all of this would affect research, but that is a challenge for us digital economy researchers to take home.

Watch Nigel’s lecture online: In the spirit of all things open, view the talk online.

We’ll be keeping an eye out for forthcoming lectures in the Technology Visionaries series – see you there!