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Big Data Equals Big Change for Seattle

By Wendy K. Leigh

When big organizations come together to solve big problems, they sometimes create a quagmire of entirely new issues and layers of red tape – but not so in Seattle these days. At least that’s the case if MetroLab has anything to do with it.

In a strengthening alliance between the University of Washington and the City of Seattle, MetroLab Network is bringing together experts who use “Big Data” processes to tackle urban issues such as income inequality, health, mobility, aging infrastructure, security, and environmental sustainability.

The Seattle chapter of MetroLab is one of 38 cities, four counties and 51 universities nationwide using Big Data in research, development and deployment policies that implement technology and analytics to understand urban science.

A January conference at Seattle City Hall, aptly named Big Data and Human Services, is a striking assemblage of community and government leaders, civil advocates, academic professionals and socially conscious businesses who advocate utilizing huge data sets to pinpoint and analyze patterns and trends affecting human behavior – and ultimately affecting the entire city.

The goal, of course, is to actually use that data for the common good. That’s where the government connection comes in, as fact-based revelations can drive innovative approaches to implementing effective policies.

Thaisa Way, Director of Urban@UW, states that by bringing together these broad areas of expertise, there’s an opportunity to make a real difference.

“Data should be in the service of knowledge, which should be in the service of improving human and environmental health and wellbeing,” she explains.

Big Data to help human services: Topic of UW, City of Seattle event Jan. 17. Photo courtesy of Urban@UW.

Big Data to help human services: Topic of UW, City of Seattle event Jan. 17. Photo courtesy of Urban@UW.

In practical terms, Way points to the issue of homelessness as an example, stressing that it’s important to ask the right questions in order to ultimately arrive at the right answers. It’s crucial to identify what we actually know and don’t know, she stresses, and how to use that knowledge to more fully meet the needs, including structural systems that must be improved.

“We need to ask productive questions that will lead to sustained change to improve lives, including the housing of all people choosing to live in our communities.”

Regarding the role of technology, Way touts it as a tool to collect and analyze data that will lead to meaningful knowledge. Using Comcast, a sponsor of the Big Data and Human Services conference, as an example, Way brings it down to a practical level:

“Comcast’s attention to the digital divide is one way a different question was asked: not how many people have access, but who does not … that is a critical switch of perspective – right?”

Thaisa Way, Director of Urban@UW. Photo courtesy of Urban@UW.

Thaisa Way, Director of Urban@UW. Photo courtesy of Urban@UW.

Conference participants included more than two dozen speakers hailing from the UW and other major universities, as well as from Microsoft, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Socrata, Kresge Foundation, Rice Kinder Institute and more. Current and former government officials involved in the conference and in issues of urban science are, among others, Christine Gregoire, the 22nd governor of Washington, and Martin O’Malley, the 61st governor of Maryland.

The MetroLab collaboration with the UW is by no means a one-time weekend think tank; following the conference brainstorming is months of ongoing collaborative research leading to hands-on scalable projects that move Seattle forward as a leader in inclusive innovation.

The ideals of Urban@UW are lofty, with a goal of “extending understanding of cities – from people, buildings, infrastructure, and energy to economics, policy, culture, art, and nature – beyond individual topics to dynamically interdependent systems, so that we can holistically design and steward vibrant and welcoming cities in which future generations will thrive.

There’s clearly work to be done in Seattle, even though it’s highly regarded as a hotspot of technology innovation and a leader in environmental, social and health investments. Way identifies the immediate priorities as housing and homelessness, environmental justice and climate change.

“… every year homelessness is on the rise, and climate change and environmental problems are impacting communities in deeply different ways, despite our claim to a more progressive and empathetic city …. We need to do better.”

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