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Can Big Data Transform Indian Megacities?

Can Big Data Transform Indian Megacities?

Can Big Data Transform Indian Megacities?
The world will have 40 megacities by 2050, though New York was the only megacity in 1950. (Wikimedia)

The world is changing faster than ever. Think tanks often discuss that India is not sufficiently urbanised, and that cities are not equipped to handle the growing urban population. But, in the next 40 years, cities are likely to build more infrastructure than they did in the entire history of mankind.

Cities cannot be planned. Megacities are the result of voluntary interactions of teeming millions over centuries. But cities need a favourable regulatory framework and proper infrastructure to make the best out of its people and resources. Private corporations and builders can build infrastructure, and engage in enforcing regulatory norms within their property lines. This already happens in cities like Jamshedpur, one of the best planned cities of India.

But as long as urban local authorities and state and central governments engage in urban planning, we need data. Without broad, empirical data, it is impossible to know whether we should, say, build a bridge from X to Y.

It is difficult to collect such data in India, as most cities do not have a long history of collecting such data. So, we should study other cities. New York, for example, is one rare city where authorities track everything, including traffic, air pollution, water quality and energy usage. As New York is densely populated, even when compared to most Indian cities, such data come handy. In fact, data on New York are being collected every moment, by New York University's Centre For Urban Science And Progress. As no other city on the earth has such long range data, in the future, urban planners across the world will learn lessons relevant to their cities from New York. This is far more important than people realise.

Urban local bodies, for example, will be able to periodically trace the change in densities in cities. Currently, floor area ratios (FAR is the ratio of the floor area constructed on a plot to the size of the plot) in the best cities are roughly linked to population density. When we have periodically revised data of how densities change, urban governments will be able to raise the floor area ratios quickly enough so that cities can house more people comfortably.  Indian cities are an exception in the sphere. In Indian cities, FAR is relatively high near the centre, with a tendency to decline towards the periphery.

For example, this infographic on LSE Cities depicts how tall buildings in Mumbai should be, given its population density. Such data will help Indian urban planners see why space is so congested in Mumbai.

Data on how people travel, for example, will help cities design better transportation networks. Transportation networks cannot be designed ignoring how people already travel. They cannot be designed ignoring the ideal mode of transport, given the density levels and car ownership in a city.  In New York, over 10 per cent of the people walk to work, while in Mumbai, it is over 55 per cent. In New York, about 30 per cent travel in cars, while in Mumbai it is 1.6 per cent. But, open spaces are so scarce in Mumbai that the streets are not designed for pedestrians. Without having reasonably accurate figures, it is foolish to decide whether to widen streets or build transit networks.

Experts think that data from transportation network companies like Uber will allow cities to have more data on mobility, further helping in transportation planning. Urban planning in India usually ignores real estate prices. At some point in the future, when transactions in black money are no longer common, we may be able to track housing prices using data from real estate prices. The Federal Reserve in the United States is already analysing data from websites like Zillow and Trulia.

This, of course, does not mean that good data will make cities paradise. We already have enough information to change cities beyond recognition. Governments do not seem to be keen on planning based on the information that we already have. Still, it is undeniable that information changes even the most prejudiced minds.

Last Updated: Fri May 27 2016

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