Toward a New Science of the City

February 18, 2014
Toward a New Science of the City

In recent years, many public and private institutions in cities have begun to collect large-scale electronic records on a wide range of behaviors and patterns of communication.  The advent of what some call “big data” provides a new set of opportunities to paint a comprehensive picture of cities, which has the potential to transform theoretical models of urban governance and social behavior.

Robert J. Sampson (Henry Ford II Professor of the Social Sciences) is Principal Investigator on a grant from the National Science Foundation (“Catalyzing a Cross-Disciplinary, Cross-University Urban Research Agenda in the Age of Digital Data”) that seeks to capitalize on these opportunities.  Part of the recently launched Boston Area Research Initiative, this effort addresses three cross-cutting themes:

  1. Stability and change in neighborhoods, or the mechanisms by which neighborhoods and their residents reciprocally shape each other across time.
  2. The social structure of the city, or how interpersonal and institutional relationships create a higher-order social structure that influences resource allocation and the way neighborhoods operate.
  3. Cognition and context, or how fundamental heuristics and the cultural narratives we adopt drive behavior in urban neighborhoods.

With his colleagues at BARI (including Dan O’Brien and Christopher Winship), Sampson has developed “ecometrics” for big data–a meaningful metric for measuring Boston’s social ecology based on  millions of digital records on calls for service.  Recent papers have applied these methods to study the relationship between the physical denigration of public spaces and crime, and to assess cycles of neighborhood change.  BARI is also attempting to create a new model for city-university partnerships and is exchanging ideas with projects in other cities, most notably Chicago, New York, and London, which, like Boston, have pioneered the use of data in local government operations.