Big Data Meets Urban Social Science

Cities are back, urbanization is rapidly expanding around the world, and new forms of data are presenting unique opportunities for urban research.   In a sense, we can think of the current era as “Big Data Meets Urban Science.”  Three current projects centered at Harvard coalesce around this theme.

The first is the Boston Area Research Initiative (BARI), which seeks to encourage original urban research on the cutting edge of urban social science and public policy.  In conducting and interpreting this research, BARI seeks to forge mutually beneficial relationships among the region’s scholars, policymakers, practitioners, and civic leaders.  In addition to offering fellowships and seed grants, as well as convening urban scholars and policymakers, BARI researchers are harnessing the power of large databases to measure conditions in Boston across time and space.  To date, papers have been written on crime, disorder, bike accidents, and civic custodianship in Boston neighborhoods.  Another BARI project exploits modern computer technology to view the geography, demographics, and other data describing the city.  BostonMap, designed by BARI and powered by Harvard’s Center for Geographic Analysis’ WorldMap, is a web platform that allows users to visualize, manipulate, create and publish data that describe the people and places of greater Boston.  For more details on BARI projects, click here.

The second project, “Catalyzing a Cross-Disciplinary, Cross-University Urban Research Agenda in the Age of Digital Data” (Robert J. Sampson, Principal Investigator),  is a grant from the National Science Foundation. Provided through a peer-reviewed NSF Program on “Building Community and Capacity for Data-Intensive Research in the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences and in Education and Human Resources,” the project is centered at BARI and focuses on the identification and procurement of data on the greater Boston area, models for measuring and analyzing these data, and the construction of a prototype Data Library that archives and catalogs the data supporting the research agenda. A paper supported by this grant by Daniel O’Brien, Robert Sampson, and Christopher Winship, “Ecometrics in the Age of Big Data: Measuring and Assessing ‘Broken Windows’ Using Large-scale Administrative Records,” has been accepted for publication in Sociological Methodology (2015).  This paper presents a framework for how large-scale administrative data can yield meaningful measurement for urban science while at the same time illustrating the methodological challenges that must be addressed in work of this kind.

The third project is the “Joint Initiative on Neighborhood, Social Organization, and the Future of the City,” funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (Mario L. Small and Robert J. Sampson, Principal Investigators).  This initiative seeks to hold advanced workshops and conferences that will further the next generation of research on neighborhoods and social organization of the contemporary American city.  In October 2013, we convened a group of 30 prominent urban scholars from several social science disciplines to discuss new ideas and research on the changing nature of urban politics and governance (for a summary, click here).  In December 2014, we will host an advanced workshop on “Big Data and the City” at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. 

In addition to these three projects, Robert Sampson and Mario Small will lead the “Workshop on Urban Social Processes” in the spring of 2015.  The workshop will serve as an intellectual forum to explore the social mechanisms, processes, and structures that occur in urban settings and the diverse behaviors that are shaped by spatial inequality. For further information and workshop schedule, click here.