By Rob Mitchum
Photo by Robert Kozloff

If we’re regularly referring patients to local businesses and organizations for the business of taking care of their health, we would also be supporting the local economy.”
—Stacy Tessler Lindau

Cities around the world share common challenges: poverty, crime, education, environmental impacts, and health. The same population density that makes cities important incubators for innovation and culture also makes these issues more concentrated and urgent. Fortunately, cities such as Chicago are coming up with novel solutions for addressing these challenges, with many recent strategies based on the explosion of city data increasingly released by governments and collected by urban researchers.

At the 7th World Urban Forum in Medellin, Colombia next month, representatives from cities around the globe will gather to exchange ideas under the theme of “Urban Equity in Development -- Cities for Life.” To help kick off that event, the University of Chicago with the MacArthur Foundation, Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Chicago Sister Cities International, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development organized a pre-session dialogue in downtown Chicago called “The Informed City: Data Driven Approaches to a More Just, Equitable and Sustainable City.” Three panels focused on urban applications of data and computation, water management, and youth violence and education, and each presented ground-breaking, data-driven efforts by the University of Chicago, the City of Chicago, Argonne National Laboratory and others to make the cities of today and tomorrow work better.

Opening the event, Ian Solomon, Vice President for Global Engagement at UChicago, highlighted the important role for academia in understanding and improving cities.

“Research universities are well positioned to help. We have an advantage over many policymakers, because we enjoy freedom from the political process,” Solomon said. “We can take our time to study things and pursue the truth. We can emphasize what’s important over what’s merely urgent or interesting.”

Computation Institute Senior Fellow Charlie Catlett, Director of the Urban Center for Computation and Data, used appropriately global examples to introduce the day’s first session, “Computation, Data, and Mobile Devices to Understand, Design, Sustain, and Enhance the City.” With satellite images of the rapidly urbanizing Pearl River Delta in China and a photo of an impoverished favela abutting a luxury hotel in Sao Paolo, Catlett emphasized the consequences of inadequate planning and the urgent need for new approaches to designing cities.

“Being able to predict the outcome of certain policies or designs or plans is essential as we move forward if we’re going to capture all the benefit that cities bring to us theoretically and if we’re going to address some of the side effects of cities that are not so much a benefit to people who live in them,” Catlett said. “The question for us is, ‘Can we direct urban growth so that these kinds of disparities become the exception rather than the rule?’”

The panel reflected a multidisciplinary response to this challenge, with participation from city officials, physicians, social scientists and computer scientists. Two doctors at University of Chicago Medicine, Melissa Gilliam and Stacy Tessler Lindau, presented new ways of using technology to supplement doctor’s appointments and motivate healthy behavior. Gilliam’s Game Changer Chicago Design Lab brings in local youth to help design video games, alternate reality games, and digital badges to guide teenagers towards healthier behaviors. Lindau’s HealtheRx project employs high school students to gather and map assets on Chicago’s South Side -- resources such as gyms, grocery stores, youth activities, medical offices, and more -- which are then shared with the public and incorporated into more holistic prescriptions for patients.

“What if our cities had an Amazon-type handle on the inventory of programs and services we have available in our city, even in the poorest communities, to connect patients with the things they need to do to manage diabetes?” Lindau asked. 

To truly thrive, data-based solutions need support from the government in the city where they’re applied. Brenna Berman, the Chief Information Officer for the City of Chicago, and John Tolva, former Chief Technology Officer for Chicago, both emphasized the commitment of Mayor Rahm Emanuel to open city data and use that information to guide city operations. Berman mentioned internal projects to create a platform for making sense of the “million rows a week” of spatial data the city collects, and the importance of working with volunteers outside the government, leveraging “3 million people instead of the 100 in my department.” Tolva said that the tech industry notion of “smart cities” is only worthwhile if it is focused on people and solutions, not the tools.

“Data is such a resource for bottom-up development, for crowdsourcing and for watching wonderful things happening at the periphery of government,” Tolva said. “But it makes a huge difference when the political will, the executive political will is there to support that. It might make all the difference.”

The second session of the day grappled with a subject much older than Big Data: water. As the global population grows and more people move into cities, the demand for clean water grows too. A panel moderated by Seth Snyder from Argonne National Laboratory and including representatives from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, the UChicago Institute of Molecular Engineering, and advocacy group Alliance for Water Efficiency argued the need for more sustainable water policies and technology.

The discussion ranged from wastewater treatment to desalination to storm drainage to greener infrastructure. But the common theme was a need for better communication with consumers about the origins and limitations of a resource where high quality and low price is, in the United States, commonly taken for granted. Chicago was again highlighted as a positive model for handling water issues, in terms of experimenting with new purification and meter technologies. But not all cities are located next to one of the largest freshwater sources in the world, and complex solutions will be needed to address growing water shortages globally.

“Science is not the only solution to this problem,” said Sharon Feng, executive director of the Institute for Molecular Engineering. “That’s why we are building a multi-level holistic research innovation community, not just for science, but also for policy, behavioral science, and urban design. We have the ecosystem here to really make differences together.”

The day’s final discussion focused on data-driven programs to address two major issues facing Chicago youth: education and violence. The University of Chicago’s Urban Education Lab and Crime Lab are each leading efforts to apply the experimental rigor of clinical studies to social interventions, generating evidence for policymakers on what strategies work and deserve additional funding or scaling.

“In medicine, before Merck can sell you any sort of pill, that company is required by the FDA to do a randomized controlled trial to determine whether it works. That is not at all the way policy is made in the United States or any other country right now,” said Jens Ludwig, Director of the Crime Lab and Co-Director of the Urban Education Lab. “We basically just make it up. We look around, we take a guess about how the world works, we have intuition, we have a hunch. ...This is an enormous problem across crime, education, and housing policy.”

Ludwig, Jonathan Guryan of Northwestern, and Mark Saint of non-profit Match Education each presented results of studies that tested a method’s effectiveness relative to a control group of “untreated” subjects. Guryan showed data from an “accidental” experiment in the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center, where, due to budget limitations, only a subset of inmates received cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) during their incarceration. Despite staff concerns that the program did little to affect recidivism, a comparison found that kids who received CBT were 3 to 4 percent less likely to be sent back to the center -- a small difference that nevertheless generated a huge cost-benefit ratio, Guryan said.

Saint’s group focuses on math tutoring for at-risk high school kids and is currently testing their methods alongside the Crime Lab’s trial for its Becoming A Man violence prevention program. Preliminary results once again revealed a modest improvement for the kids receiving extra help, but Saint emphasized that the increase was the equivalent of changing F students into C students, and thus changing dropouts to graduates.

For his presentation, Ludwig focused on a negative result: the lack of educational improvement seen after families in high-poverty areas were given a voucher to move to wealthier areas. His point was to emphasize that a commonly held assumption of the effect of neighborhoods upon school performance did not hold up to experimental scrutiny, suggesting that resources would be better spent on more direct interventions backed by data.

“The way to change policy is to do demonstration projects that show the public sector what actually works, with the hope of policymakers then picking up on those interventions that do seem promising and taking them to scale,” Ludwig said. “Randomized trials have particular power in that model; everybody intuitively gets what they are.”

While the focus of “The Informed City” was predominantly on local projects, the relevance to cities facing similar challenges in the United States or other parts of the world was clear. Chicago has the potential to be a laboratory for new ideas in urban research and policy, and the University of Chicago can be a leader in creating, testing, and sharing the new approaches that lead to better cities worldwide.

“What you do in Chicago or other cities across the country is very relevant to what urban communities around the world are facing, and what they are doing in other parts of the world can be relevant to what we’re doing here,” said Derek Douglas, Vice President for Civic Engagement for the University of Chicago. “That is why having this pre-cursor event was so valuable. These are the topics that will be discussed at the World Urban Forum next month, and it is wonderful that the University of Chicago and our partners here in Chicago will be able to engage with leaders across the world who are also dealing with similar challenges and trying to take advantage of similar opportunities.”

Originally published on March 10, 2014.