As the Earth's population increases, the world is urbanizing at an accelerating rate. Currently, half of the people on planet live in cities, but that number is expected to grow to 70 percent in the coming decades. Booming populations in China and India have driven rapid urban development at a rate unprecedented in human history. Simultaneously, existing cities are releasing more data about their infrastructure than ever before, on everything from crime to public transit performance to snow plow geotracking.

So now is the perfect time for computational scientists to get involved with designing and building better cities, and that was the topic of a panel at the eScience 2012 meeting moderated by UrbanCCD director Charlie Catlett. With representatives from IBM and Chicago City Hall and a co-founder of EveryBlock, the panel brought together experts who have already started digging into city data to talk about both the potential and the precautions inherent within.

For a local example, Chicago's Chief Technology Officer John Tolva talked about Mayor Rahm Emanuel's initiative to release more city data to the public through sites such as the Chicago Data Portal. The city has also taken steps to convert some of that data into useful web applications, such as tracking the result of a call to the city’s non-emergency 311 center, and applications that are more entertainment value, like the city's snow plow tracker. Maybe even more important was the city's admission that they don't need to be the only one creating these apps, organizing "Hackathons" for web developers to design their own tools and release them to the public. Apps that remind Chicagoans to move their cars on street sweeping days or tell them when the next bus will arrive have proven immensely popular, Tolva said.

But Dan O'Neil, the executive director of the Smart Chicago Collaborative, said that merely releasing the data is not enough. An infrastructure for civic innovation needs to be built, combining public and private data to find inefficiencies that can be capitalized on by the market to drive a city's economic development. O'Neil used the example of commercial real estate, where information from the government and private companies could be mashed up to turn the current "hunch-oriented" process of selecting the best site for a new business into a more scientific procedure. John Ricketts of IBM's "Smarter Cities" program emphasized the need for cultural knowledge above and beyond the raw data, citing a collaboration with the city of Beijing where CO2 sensors in residences are designed to contact neighbors to provide help instead of emergency services in case of an alarm.

Catlett's vision for the role of computation in cities takes a broader view, combining models on environment and climate with the flood of open city data to build complex simulations for city planning. Catlett used the example of Lakeside, a proposed development on Chicago's South Side which will span 600 acres of residential and commercial buildings. Urban planners know how to design a 60-acre development, Catlett said, but when you increase the size of a development tenfold, "we've gone beyond the scale of human experience."