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Urban informatics refers to the study of people creating, applying and using information and communication technology and data in the context of cities and urban environments. Various definitions are available, some provided in the Definitions section. Urban informatics is a trans-disciplinary field of research and practice that draws on three broad domains: people, place and technology.
In addition to geographic data / spatial data, most common sources of data relevant to urban informatics can be divided into three broad categories: government data (census data, open data, etc.); personal data (social media, quantified self data, etc.), and; sensor data (transport, surveillance, CCTV, Internet of Things devices, etc.).
Although first mentions of the term date back as early as 1987, urban informatics did not emerge as a notable field of research and practice until 2006 (see History section). Since then, the emergence and growing popularity of ubiquitous computing, open data and big data analytics, as well as smart cities contributed to a surge in interest in urban informatics, not just from academics but also from industry and city governments seeking to explore and apply the possibilities and opportunities of urban informatics.
Research and development work in urban informatics has targeted various concerns, issues, applications and domains, including public engagement and activism,citizen science and participatory sensing,environmental sustainability,food and urban agriculture,libraries and coworking spaces,urban design and planning, city safety and security,transport and mobility.
Many definitions of urban informatics have been published and can be found online. The descriptions provided by Townsend in his foreword and by Foth in his preface to the "Handbook of Research on Urban Informatics" emphasize two key aspects: (1) the new possibilities (including real-time data) for both citizens and city administrations afforded by ubiquitous computing, and (2) the convergence of physical and digital aspects of the city.
"Urban informatics is the study, design, and practice of urban experiences across different urban contexts that are created by new opportunities of real-time, ubiquitous technology and the augmentation that mediates the physical and digital layers of people networks and urban infrastructures."-- Foth, Choi, Satchell, 2011, Urban Informatics
Although closely related, Foth differentiates urban informatics from the field of urban computing by suggesting that the former focusses more on the social and human implications of technology in cities (similar to the community and social emphases of how community informatics and social informatics are defined), and the latter focusses more on technology and computing. Urban informatics emphasises the relationship between urbanity, as expressed through the many dimensions of urban life, and technology.
Later, with the increasing popularity of commercial opportunities under the label of smart city and big data, subsequent definitions became narrow and limited in defining urban informatics mainly as big data analytics for efficiency and productivity gains in city contexts - unless the arts and social sciences are added to the interdisciplinary mix. This specialisation within urban informatics is sometimes referred to as 'data-driven, networked urbanism' or urban science. Three examples:
"The use of information and communications technology to better understand metropolitan needs, challenges, and opportunities."-- McKinsey on Society, 2012, Emerging Trends in Urban Informatics
"Urban informatics uses data to better understand how cities work. This understanding can remedy a wide range of issues affecting the everyday lives of citizens and the long-term health and efficiency of cities - from morning commutes to emergency preparedness to air quality."-- Center for Urban Science and Progress, 2013, What is Urban Informatics?
"Urban informatics, understood as the capture of the soundings produced by all of a city's connected devices and the application of data from those devices analysed in various ways."-- Thrift, 2014, The Promise of Urban Informatics: Some Speculations
This narrow view prominent in the new field of urban science was met with criticism by many scholars and commentators calling for a broader perspective that included not just the views of city officials but citizens. They suggested a shift in focus from the smart city to smart citizens. Michael Batty included both aspects - the narrow focus on data analysis and the wider focus on citizen participation and engagement - in his definition of urban informatics:
"Urban Informatics is loosely defined as the application of computers to the functioning of cities. In its narrower focus, it pertains to the ways in which computers are being embedded into cities as hardware and as software so that the routine functions can be made more efficient, not only through automated responses but through the data that such computation generates which is central to policy analysis. This narrow focus is on control. In its wider focus, it is concerned with the use of computers and communications to enable services to be delivered across many domains and to enable populations to engage and interact in policy issues that require citizen participation."-- Batty, 2013, Urban Informatics and Big Data
One of the first occurrences of the term can be found in Mark E. Hepworth's 1987 article "The Information City", which mentions the term "urban informatics" on page 261, however, Hepworth's overall discussion is more concerned with the broader notion of "informatics planning." Considering the article pre-dates the advent of ubiquitous computing and urban computing, it does contain some visionary thoughts about major changes on the horizon brought about by information and communication technology and the impact on cities.
On 12 September 2003, The Feature published an article by Howard Rheingold titled, "Cities, Swarms, Cell Phones: The Birth of Urban Informatics." In this article, Rheingold refers to Anthony Townsend as an "urban informatician and wireless activist."
The Urban Informatics Research Lab was founded at Queensland University of Technology in 2006, the first research group explicitly named to reflect its dedication to the study of urban informatics. The first edited book on the topic, the "Handbook of Research on Urban Informatics", published in 2009., brought together researchers and scholars from three broad domains: people, place, and technology, or; the social, the spatial, and the technical.
There were many precursors to this transdisciplinarity of "people, place, and technology." From an architecture, planning and design background, there is the work of the late William J. Mitchell, Dean of the MIT School of Architecture and Planning, and author of the 1995 book "City of Bits: Space, Place, and the Infobahn." Mitchell was influential in suggesting a profound relationship between place and technology at a time when mainstream interest was focused on the promise of the Information Superhighway and what Frances Cairncross called the "Death of Distance." Rather than a decline in the significance of place through services such as telecommuting, distance education, e-commerce, the physical / tangible layers of the city started to mix with the digital layers of the internet and online communications. Aspects of this trend have been studied under the terms community informatics and community network.
One of the first texts that systematically examined the impact of information technologies on the spatial and social evolution of cities is Telecommunications and the City: Electronic Spaces, Urban Places, by Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin. The relationship between cities and the internet was further expanded upon in a volume edited by Stephen Graham entitled "Cybercities Reader" and by various authors in the 2006 book "Networked Neighbourhoods: The Connected Community in Context" edited by Patrick Purcell. Furthermore, early contributions influencing the urban informatics discourse have been published in the Situated Technologies Pamphlet Series that contains nine issues published by the Architectural League of New York between 2007 and 2012. Additionally, contributions from architecture, design and planning scholars are contained in the 2007 journal special issue on "Space, Sociality, and Pervasive Computing" published in the journal Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design, 34(3), guest edited by the late Bharat Dave, as well as in the 2008 book "Augmented Urban Spaces: Articulating the Physical and Electronic City" edited by Alessandro Aurigi and Fiorella De Cindio, based on contributions to the Digital Cities 4 workshop held in conjunction with the Communities and Technologies (C&T) conference 2005 in Milan, Italy.
The first prominent and explicit use of the term urban informatics in the sociology and media studies literature appears in the 2007 special issue "Urban Informatics: Software, Cities and the New Cartographies of Knowing Capitalism" published in the journal Information, Communication & Society, 10(6), guest edited by Ellison, Burrows, & Parker. Later on, in 2013, Burrows and Beer argued that the socio-technical transformations described by research studies conducted in the field of urban informatics give reason for sociologists more broadly to not only question epistemological and methodological norms and practices but also to rethink spatial assumptions.
In computer science, the sub-domains of human-computer interaction, ubiquitous computing, and urban computing, provided early contributions that influenced the emerging field of urban informatics. Examples include the Digital Cities workshop series (see below), Greenfield's 2006 book "Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing" as well as the 2006 special issue "Urban Computing: Navigating Space and Context" published in the IEEE journal Computer, 39(9), guest edited by Shklovski & Chang, and the 2007 special issue "Urban Computing" published in the IEEE journal Pervasive Computing, 6(3), guest edited by Kindberg, Chalmers, & Paulos.
The Digital Cities Workshop Series started in 1999 and is the longest running academic workshop series that has focused on, and profoundly influenced the field of urban informatics. The first two workshops in 1999 and 2001 were both held in Kyoto, Japan, with subsequent workshops since 2003 held in conjunction with the biennial International Conference on Communities and Technologies (C&T).
Each Digital Cities workshop proceedings have become the basis for key anthologies listed below, which in turn have also been formative to a diverse set of emerging fields, including urban informatics, urban computing, smart cities, pervasive computing, internet of things, media architecture, urban interaction design, and urban science.
|Digital Cities 1||Kyoto, Japan, 1999||Ishida, T., & Isbister, K. (Eds.). (2000). Digital Cities: Technologies, Experiences, and Future Perspectives (Lecture Notes in Computer Science No. 1765). Heidelberg, Germany: Springer.|
|Digital Cities 2||Kyoto, Japan, 2001||Tanabe, M., van den Besselaar, P., & Ishida, T. (Eds.) (2002). Digital Cities 2: Computational and Sociological Approaches (Lecture Notes in Computer Science No. 2362). Heidelberg, Germany: Springer.|
|Digital Cities 3||C&T 2003, Amsterdam, NL||Van den Besselaar, P., & Koizumi, S. (Eds.) (2005). Digital Cities 3: Information Technologies for Social Capital (Lecture Notes in Computer Science No. 3081). Heidelberg, Germany: Springer.|
|Digital Cities 4||C&T 2005, Milan, Italy||Aurigi, A., & De Cindio, F. (Eds.) (2008). Augmented Urban Spaces: Articulating the Physical and Electronic City. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.|
|Digital Cities 5||C&T 2007, Michigan, U.S.||Foth, M. (Ed.) (2009). Handbook of Research on Urban Informatics: The Practice and Promise of the Real-Time City. Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference, IGI Global.|
|Digital Cities 6||C&T 2009, PennState, U.S.||Foth, M., Forlano, L., Satchell, C., & Gibbs, M. (Eds.) (2011). From Social Butterfly to Engaged Citizen: Urban Informatics, Social Media, Ubiquitous Computing, and Mobile Technology to Support Citizen Engagement. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.|
|Digital Cities 7||C&T 2011, Brisbane, Australia||Foth, M., Brynskov, M., & Ojala, T. (Eds.) (2015). Citizen's Right to the Digital City: Urban Interfaces, Activism, and Placemaking. Singapore: Springer.|
|Digital Cities 8||C&T 2013, Munich, Germany||Foth, M., Brynskov, M., & Ojala, T. (Eds.) (2015). Citizen's Right to the Digital City: Urban Interfaces, Activism, and Placemaking. Singapore: Springer.|
|Digital Cities 9||C&T 2015, Limerick, Ireland||de Lange, M., & de Waal, M. (2017, forthcoming). The Hackable City: Digital Media & Collaborative Citymaking in the Network Society.|
|Digital Cities 10||C&T 2017, Troyes, France||TBC|
A July 2015 report published by the New York University's Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management and the Data & Society Research Institute contains a timeline of research centres that focus on urban informatics and related research. Additional entries shown in the table below have been sourced from an additional timeline compiled by the UrbanIxD (Urban Interaction Design) project. This timeline was publicly displayed as part of the City | Data | Future exhibition at the Media Architecture Biennale 2014 in Aarhus, Denmark, on 19 November 2014.
|1995||UCL Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, University College London|
|2003||Smart Cities Program, MIT Media Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology|
|2004||MIT Senseable City Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology|
|2005||Urban Scaling Working Group, Santa Fee Institute|
|2006||Urban Informatics Research Lab, Queensland University of Technology|
|2007||The Mobile City, The Netherlands|
|2009||Media Architecture Institute, Vienna. From 2011 also in Sydney, for 2015 in Beijing, and 2016 in Toronto.|
|2010||Future Cities Laboratory, ETH Zürich|
|2011||Boston Area Research Initiative, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University|
|2012||Center for Urban Science and Progress, New York University|
|2012||Intel Collaborative Research Institute for Sustainable and Connected Cities (ICRI Cities), Imperial College and University College London|
|2012||Urban Center for Computation and Data, University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory|
|2013||Programmable City Project, Maynooth University|
|2013||Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions, TU Delft|
|2014||Warwick Institute for the Science of Cities, University of Warwick|
|2014||Urban Big Data Centre, University of Glasgow|
|2014||City Sciences, Universidad Politécnica de Madrid|
|2014||Metro21, Carnegie Mellon University|
|2015||Urban Informatics Program, Northeastern University|
The diverse range of people, groups and organisations involved in urban informatics is reflective of the diversity of methods being used in its pursuit and practice. As a result, urban informatics borrows from a wide range of methodologies across the social sciences, humanities, arts, design, architecture, planning (including geographic information systems), and technology (in particular computer science, pervasive computing, and ubiquitous computing), and applies those to the urban domain. Examples include:
Since Foth's 2009 "Handbook of Research on Urban Informatics", a number of books and special issues of academic journals have been published on the topic, which further demonstrate the increasing significance and notability of the field of urban informatics. Key works include:
|2011||Shepard, M. (Ed.) (2011). Sentient City: Ubiquitous Computing, Architecture, and the Future of Urban Space. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.|
|2011||Foth, M., Forlano, L., Satchell, C., & Gibbs, M. (Eds.) (2011). From Social Butterfly to Engaged Citizen: Urban Informatics, Social Media, Ubiquitous Computing, and Mobile Technology to Support Citizen Engagement. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.|
|2011||Kitchin, R., & Dodge, M. (2011). Code/Space: Software and Everyday Life. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.|
|2011||Gordon, E., & de Souza e Silva, A. (2011). Net Locality: Why Location Matters in a Networked World. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.|
|2011||Hearn, G., Foth, M., & Stevenson, T. (Eds.). (2011). Community Engagement for Sustainable Urban Futures. Special issue of Futures, 43(4).|
|2012||Foth, M., Rittenbruch, M., Robinson, R., & Viller, S. (Eds.) (2012). Street Computing. Special issue of the Journal of Urban Technology, 19(2).|
|2013||Townsend, A. (2013). Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.|
|2013||McCullough, M. (2013). Ambient Commons: Attention in the Age of Embodied Information. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.|
|2013||Greenfield, A. (2013). Against the Smart City. New York, NY: Do Projects.|
|2014||Foth, M., Rittenbruch, M., Robinson, R., & Viller, S. (Eds.) (2014). Street Computing: Urban Informatics and City Interfaces. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.|
|2014||de Waal, M. (2014). The City as Interface: How New Media are Changing the City. Rotterdam, NL: NAi010 Publisher.|
|2014||Unsworth, K., Forte, A., & Dilworth, R. (Eds.) (2014). Urban Informatics: The Role of Citizen Participation in Policy Making. Special issue of the Journal of Urban Technology, 21(4).|
|2014||Horelli, L., & Sadoway, D. (Eds.) (2014). Community Informatics and Urban Planning. Special issue of the Journal of Community Informatics, 10(3).|
|2014||Brynskov, M., et al. (2014). Urban Interaction Design: Towards City Making. Amsterdam, NL: UrbanIxD.|
|2015||Houghton, K., & Choi, J. H.-j. (Eds.) (2015). Urban Acupuncture. Special issue of the Journal of Urban Technology, 22(3).|
|2015||Kukka, H., Foth, M., & Dey, A. K. (Eds.) (2015). Transdisciplinary Approaches to Urban Computing. Special issue of the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 81.|
|2015||Foth, M., Brynskov, M., & Ojala, T. (Eds.) (2015). Citizen's Right to the Digital City: Urban Interfaces, Activism, and Placemaking. Singapore: Springer.|
|2015||Willis, K. S. (2015). Netspaces: Space and Place in a Networked World. London, UK: Routledge.|
|2015||Salim, F., & Haque, U. (2015). Urban computing in the wild: A survey on large scale participation and citizen engagement with ubiquitous computing, cyber physical Systems, and internet of Things. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 81(Transdisciplinary Approaches to Urban Computing), 31-48.|
|2016||Katz, V. S., & Hampton, K. N. (Eds.) (2016). Communication in City and Community: From the Chicago School to Digital Technology. Special issue of the American Behavioral Scientist, 60(1).|
|2016||Ratti, C., & Claudel, M. (2016). The City of Tomorrow: Sensors, Networks, Hackers, and the Future of Urban Life. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.|
|2017||Thakuriah, P., Tilahun, N., & Zellner, M. (Eds.) (2017, in press). Seeing Cities Through Big Data: Research, Methods and Applications in Urban Informatics. London, UK: Springer.|
Current calls for special issues of academic journals include:
A number of influential thinkers and commentators maintain web blogs on topics relevant to the field of urban informatics, including most notably: