Cities are denser. Our population is still growing. How can we make good decisions today to prepare for tomorrow? Big data! You don’t need to be a scientist to read it, participate in it or see the value in it, which is why Sumarlinah thinks it’s about time we all got around it.
What is big data? It’s all the information being collected and stored every second, and we are only just discovering how to harness these huge amounts of information. Get a taste for how much data we generate daily here.
I know, big data sounds scary. But let me give you four reasons why data lets us get to know the world like never before.
1. Data is the scaffolding of our cities
By 2050, 70% of the human population will live in megacities, with populations of over 10 million people. This is concerning, because cities are the most hazardous places to live in. There’s the urban heat island effect which is literally melting streets, a product of higher concentrations of people and things in one place. There’s also the tragedy of the commons, where our resources are overused and depleted at an alarming rate. These are but two of many examples showing us that the bigger a population gets, the more we struggle to live.
The almost exponential increase we are seeing in urban population density has meant that governance is scrambling more than ever to keep up.
We often (conveniently) forget that the way our environments are structured is designed by other humans. In most cases, cities were not designed with founders planning for millions of inhabitants. And I would argue that in all cases, urban governance systems struggle to have any sort of overview to help them navigate their work.
This is because there are so many moving parts: infrastructure, transport, water and waste management, not to mention the added complicating factor of millions of humans. Cities are living organisms, constantly shifting and morphing and what we want, how we behave, and who we are is constantly changing.
To keep up, we need to keep asking questions. You can’t have a coffee with everyone, but you can use data, like Neighbourlytics, a tech company started by two Aussie women that uses data to help local councils measure social wellbeing in over 500 neighbourhoods since 2017. Check it out!
2. Data is shaping our world, and now we can shape the world through data
One of the things I find so exciting about data is how it expands my understanding of peoples’ lived experiences. We can measure the proportions of people who live below the poverty line, or who have investment properties. People who feel like they are part of their local community, or how prepared they are for disasters.
Our societies are too big to be able to understand ourselves without data. And by using data, we can see the ways we can improve the world.
Look at the amazing work being done by Gapminder. Their team takes big data and turns it into legible and intuitive graphs that help us understand global trends and debunk stereotypes and biases we hold about the world.
It’s amazing to me that we have access to all this information. We can now understand things through data we wouldn’t be able to figure out any other way!
Imagine trying to track, say, the global coal consumption per person rate in any other way. IMAGINE.
3. Governance is a collective effort
Here is another thing we all love to do: complain. We love complaining about late trains; construction work; traffic; the NBN. Yet urban governance is not only the responsibility of the government. We are all a part of governance. The way we choose to behave, the ways we interact with space and other people around us, and what we elect as city priorities is what steers governance. Governance is a collective responsibility, and I don’t think we can abstain from participating—especially if we want to complain.
Data facilitates civic participation. Once, it was our responsibility to attend town hall meetings to have our insights heard, and now our responsibility is to engage in surveys. We all want the best for our communities, but public servants aren’t mind readers, they need our input.
A great example is Australia Talks by ABC—a project exploring the social fabric of Australia, helping us understand who we are as a collective in real-time.
4. Being data literate is sought after
We use data to measure engagement, develop strategies and inform decisions every day. The globalised and digitised world has stretched our reach beyond all physical barriers, and such expansive territory can’t be understood by just one human brain. Data is your tool to see the forest for the trees.
The more we normalise data, the more accessible data becomes. Simply understanding the best ways to visualise data (pie charts are never the answer), and acknowledging the importance of including data in your work will go a long way.
Of course, you could also learn to code and be the most badarse person on your team, but I’ll leave that up to you!
Ultimately, I think you will find that data already exists all around you, and harnessing the knowledge within it will open up pathways and opportunities that are really exciting.