Christa Brelsford

Cities give rise to socioeconomic processes that have led to spectacular economic growth and human development in now-rich parts of the world. Such changes, however, were relatively slow to emerge, typically spanning several generations. 

Today, the rapid urbanization of the “developing” world demands that problems of sustainable human development are solved faster, “really in the next few decades,” says SFI Professor Luis Bettencourt. “But we still lack critical theoretical and practical knowledge about cities and their role in the processes of human development,” he says. 

Addressing this information crisis through improved data and data collection is the focus of three-day workshop at SFI November 19-21, “Acting Locally, Understanding Globally: Scaling Up Community Collected Data in Developing Cities.” 

Co-organized by Bettencourt, ASU’s Jose Lobo, and SFI’s Joe Hand, the meeting brings together researchers, community and nongovernmental organizations, open-source software developers, and representatives from the United Nations, World Bank, and various philanthropic foundations.
The need for data is particularly critical – and lacking – at the local level inside cities, says Bettencourt, where strong heterogeneity and inequality necessarily underlie urban planning and human development. 

“The technology to collect, organize, and share local urban data is getting really good and it will only get better,” he says. “But the organization is lacking. We want to create a vision for acquiring data easily and learning from it fast.” 

Born out of the SFI researchers’ interactions with local community organizations as part of the Neighborhood, Slums, & Human Development project, the workshop seeks ways to build an international community dedicated to collaborative local data collection, especially in poor neighborhoods in developing cities. 

“We want to create information bases and tools for large-scale collaboration, and create free open platforms for people to collect the data, upload it, and share it with others,” says Bettencourt. “We want to create an infrastructure that’s light and easy to use, and have the means to share knowledge about people’s local conditions – sort of like Wikipedia for neighborhoods, but with a strong data and scientific foundation.” 

More about the invitation-only workshop here.