On July 21st 2017 academics and public sector representatives met to discuss the challenge of harnessing big data in the urban context in order to address the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The event was hosted by the Judith Neilson Chair in Architecture and City Futures Research Centre both of which sit in the Faculty of the Built Environment, the University of New South Wales (UNSW).

Organised as part of the PLuS Alliance, a research and education network between UNSW, Arizona State University and Kings College London, the roundtable was an important opportunity for cross disciplinary discussions. 

As a reflection of the large number of SDG's, its multiple indicators and the fact that low, middle and high income countries are committed to them, there was a wide variety of presentations. Diverse topics included the use of big data to identify air pollution exposure rates in London, active transport mobility patterns across Australian cities, prediction of migration patterns as because of conflict in Afghanistan and measuring resilience in the urban context of Phoenix, Arizona. 

Big data is beng used to identify air pollution exposure rates in London, England. Image: Leolie Lovely

The roundtable heard how policy makers are using mobile phone data in Uganda to identify emerging vulnerabilities and predict food insecurity as a result of the changing habits of mobile phone credit top ups. A Research Fellow from the Institute for Economics and Peace, the organisation responsible for the annual Peace Index, highlighted the relationships between the SDGs.  

A shanty town in Brazil. mage: Getty Images

What became clear is that the use of big data has possibilities across multiple sectors and can be harnessed for social good however this is not always how big data is framed in the public’s perception. The use of big data by corporations is understood by many as a way of meeting our consumer needs but how is it meeting needs for the collective good?  What role does academia have to play in harnessing its potential in this sphere and its responsible use? These are some of the interesting questions which the roundtable addressed.

Experts from a range of disciplines including Arts and Social Sciences, Computer Science, Law, Mathematics and the Built Environment amongst others, discussed the importance of what validity and accepted standards for academic rigour mean when using big data. What is “good enough” data? While it is accepted that big data is not a “magic bullet” there is an awareness that national level data used to measure the SDGs is insufficient and big data, if used appropriately, could fill some of those gaps. 

Image: City Lab

The legal constraints on data sharing in certain contexts were discussed as well as the legal ramifications of the relationship between big data and the agency of the individual. Since data sources overlap boundaries this calls into question traditional legal and political boundaries and the rights of citizens. What implications does this have in contexts where civil society and legal and political institutions are weak? 

Ultimately issues on inequality and big data were identified as a key research area for the group going forward. “Leaving no-one behind” was the SDG theme last year and access and analysis of big data has huge potential for development. The roundtable concluded that it is important to find ways to ensure that all countries can engage in a global research enterprise that can harness the benefits of big data to ensure that no one is left behind. 

The United Nations has a sustainable development agenda. Image: United Nations