Cambridge, Massachusetts - Two global trends - bigger cities and more data - converged last week at MIT, where an international conference on computing and urban studies showed how researchers are harnessing more and more information in an attempt to help cities grow, improve transportation, and prepare for a changing climate and potential disasters.

“The challenges and opportunities the planet faces have converged in cities,” Assaf Biderman, associate director of MIT’s Senseable City Lab, said in one of the conference’s keynote talks.

The four-day Computers in Urban Planning and Urban Management (CUPUM) conference sprawled like a large city, featuring over 150 presented papers from a wide variety of scholars and policymakers. With a general theme of “support systems” for planning, the event encompassed new urban analytics, modeling, and urban information infrastructures, among other topics.

“There’s an enormous volume of new data we’re collecting about the city [that] does lead to an opportunity to do better logistics and short-term urban management,” said Joseph Ferreira, a professor in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) who helped organize the conference, “which can hopefully lead to better theories and better planning that’s more medium and long-range.”

Speaking to MIT News, Ferreira added: “You can get a city to work well for a short while if you focus on one thing and optimize that. But you look at the world cities, the great cities over history, they have to work for multiple people in different ways to succeed.”

In transit

In that vein, many papers at CUPUM tackled subjects such as transportation, where data is richer than ever, but where different segments of the urban population have different needs and interests — and where scholars are still exploring how broadly they can generalize their findings.

For instance, Sarah Williams, an assistant professor in DUSP, presented a paper on digital tracking of “matatus” — minibuses used as group taxis — in Nairobi, Kenya. Tracking the vehicles allowed Williams and her colleagues to release, in 2014, Nairobi’s first-ever map of matatu routes, which support millions of passenger trips per year. In turn, Williams suggested, that map — now used by Kenya’s government — could help people in Nairobi alter the matatu system if demand warrants it. In this sense, Williams said, a successful project is one in which “people actually take your data and use it in a new way.”

In many cases, urban planners must figure out how best to accommodate freight transportation in cities. Edgar Blanco, research director of MIT’s Center for Transportation and Logistics, presented an MIT team’s paper analyzing the types of commerce present in some urban areas of Lisbon and Singapore, in order to determine the ideal space and road needs of those districts. As with many CUPUM papers, this one highlighted the question of how widely urban design research can be generalized globally.

“What we think is going to be the future is a set of four or five archetype models of cities across the world,” Blanco said, an observation that could also be applied to a series of models presented in conference papers, on issues from distributing electric-vehicle charging stations to models of urban hazards and disaster risk.

Getting prepared

Indeed, a plethora of talks, papers, and presentations at the conference’s poster sessions focused on disaster preparedness. Many of these were by the conference’s substantial contingent of Japanese scholars — some in response to the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster that hit the country in 2011, but others representing research dating back nearly a decade.

“They’ve been ahead of the game with respect to doing very detailed planning and having very detailed evacuation and post-disaster relief and civic engagement planning, compared to many places,” Ferreira observed, adding that he was struck by the increased number of papers on the topic at this year’s CUPUM. (The event is held in a different city every two years; this was MIT’s first time hosting it.)

Some discussion sessions following paper presentations this year focused on issues of social justice and urban life, with some scholars suggesting that so-called “smart” technologies might favor well-off segments of cities, rather than entire populations.

“Planners also need to worry about the distributional consequences,” Ferreira acknowledged. “There are all sorts of possibilities for digital divides and distributional divides in periods of rapid change, and we’re seeing rapid change now.”

Overall, Ferreira concluded, “It isn’t like everything will be solved tomorrow. But there are promising directions, and we’re still learning how the information technologies are changing our behavior, our understanding of what people are doing, and our capacity to enable people to do better what they want to do.”