19 million people traversing between 8 million housing units. 411 of them per square mile, hopping 26 subway lines connecting over 450 stations. All of these numbers and more merge to define the real estate of New York City — and that’s just the beginning of what such data can do.

Data that assesses urban landscapes can be used and fuzed, crunched and converted, and analyzed to churn out transformative ideas. When it comes to the development of buildings, communities and infrastructure, “big data” has become a just as huge an asset, able to inform new projects in cities across the world.

When utilized properly, data can enable city planners to make better decisions, and ultimately plan smarter and more technologically-integrated cities. As the technology becomes more ubiquitous, it has the potential to propel cities further into the 21st century, where new and exciting possibilities await.

The evolution of urban development

Many American cities as we know them today were sketched on century-old papers by bespeckled 19th and 20th-century architects. Optimized for the success of private businesses, early U.S. cities burst forth at great speed — but at a disadvantage to the working poor. Around 1900, planners mitigated these designs with construction more geared towards citizen needs.

Since then, urban development has evolved year by year, decade by decade. When necessary, developers implement changes needed to keep older cities livable, comfortable and efficient. But the industry is undergoing key changes that could transform it into something unlike anything the architects of yore would recognize — especially as technology and big data find stronger industry footing.

So, what exactly does big data mean for the cities of today and tomorrow? With census data increasingly outdated, there are more efficient ways to monitor the changing factors that shape our cities. This can be exemplified by the growing field of “urban science,” which employs individuals that record, measure and organize city data. From Google’s Sidewalk Labs to New York’s Center for Urban Science and Progress, private organizations and universities across the nation (and world) are leading the way to innovation by blending technology, problem-solving and design.

But it’s not just North America; in fact, Asia is the continent sprouting the most “smart cities,” often from scratch. The global expansion of cities as smart entities, rich with data, has come about for several reasons: growing populations, new technological capabilities, and a higher consciousness of ethics in building, to name a few. All of these factors are taken into account by modern urban developers, who share the common goal of community betterment.

How it works

There are many ways that data can factor into the process of urban planning. On the back end, it can be used as preparation — for example, to collect data to identify issues (like traffic congestion) and implement a solution. On the front end, it can be part of the execution — for example, inputting sensors into infrastructure, then presenting data it to help citizens navigate. In between the planning and the implementation, aggregated data can also be used to render projects in 3D.

Urban development projects involving big data may include sensors, cloud servers and what’s known as the Internet of Things. Together, these connect ordinary objects (like electrical grids, cars, and buildings) to the Internet. With this information, urban planners can more definitively answer the question of why redesigns are necessary. Rather than guessing, there is ample empirical evidence to inform city planning — and then even more data to ensure it functions properly.

What’s next?

Already, the magnitude of our cities’ data is enough to prompt projects to make them cleaner, safer, and more efficient. As our ability to harness this information gets better, so too will the opportunities and solutions affiliated.

There will no doubt be some kinks in finding the limits of big data. For example, is it unethical for private cell phone data to be bunched in with the rest? In the case of budget cuts, who will fund these projects? Will the military use this information in case of urban warfare? (quick answer: yes). All of these questions are important to consider, and will no doubt be addressed as the field heats up. In the meantime, I think we can all agree that using bettering our cities with data at the helm is a goal worthy of continued support.

Featured image: Chris Devers via Flickr