How Houston Can Harness the Power of “Big Data”

Ryan Holeywell | @RyanHoleywell | September 14, 2015

Unprecedented partnership between Rice and City of Houston is part of a growing movement

Unprecedented partnership between Rice and City of Houston is part of a growing movement

When Kinder Institute Director Bill Fulton was mayor of Ventura, Calif. – a city of 110,000 near Los Angeles – he knew its fire department wasn’t operating as efficiently as it could be.

Fire trucks and firefighters waited in their stations 24 hours per day, always on alert but usually not fighting fires.

When the city crunched the numbers, it turned out that fires were especially likely to occur during normal business hours, on weekdays, in the oldest part of town.

So when it was time to add a new fire engine, Ventura didn’t put it in a traditional firehouse. Instead, it roamed the most fire-prone neighborhood during those peak times. “It cut the response times like you wouldn’t believe,” Fulton said.

The example, Fulton says, shows the power of how city governments can utilize data.

A new technique

Throughout most of human history, cities have been run by people who knew almost nothing about the way they operate. Experts have always had their own experiences to draw on, and they could broadly understand city operations.

But only recently have we developed the tools and computational power that allow us to comprehensively collect, organize and interpret data about city operations on a minute level. That has dramatic implications.

Today, Rice University and the City of Houston announced a new effort to work together to use data to help figure out ways to improve our community. The partnership – one of several similar ones across the nation the White House announced today – represents an unprecedented opportunity.

The city and Rice both have assets that will allow them to develop meaningful solutions to urban problems by working together, rather than tackling them on their own.

Working together

The city has access to untold droves of data. In a city of 2.2 million residents, the volume of data collected, organized and maintained by the government is staggering. Where are crimes being committed? Which areas are prone to flooding? Where are building codes being violated? Where are potholes being reported (and how frequently are they fixed)? The city has already made dozens of data sets available to the public through its online data portal.

There’s more to come: an estimated 2,000 data sets could one day be made available to the public, thanks to the city’s decision last year to work towards cataloging and publishing even more information. But that’s no easy task. Every department collects different types of data, in different ways, at different times and for different purposes.

Of course, there’s nothing special about data sets themselves. What really matters is what we do with them. To that end, Rice University will now be able to use its vast computational power to help make sense of all that information.

New studies

Experts at the Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research can play a role in putting that data into context and generating ideas about which urban problems that data can help address. Already Kinder Institute researchers are working on three projects as part of this new partnership. They include:

  • Housing change: Using city and county permit data on construction, demolition and substandard housing, Rice researchers will document the characteristics of housing – and how it’s changing – in Houston neighborhoods. The research will inform future housing infrastructure policy in the City of Houston.
  • Streetlights: Using data indicating the location of streetlights and how they’re used, Rice researchers will map and analyze patterns showing which lights are working and which aren’t. The data can then be synced with other neighborhood data showing things like demographics, crime and traffic. This research will be used to inform the City’s future decisions about where to locate new streetlights and how to prioritize streetlight repair.
  • Bikeshare: Using data provided by BCycle, which operates Houston’s bikeshare system, Rice researchers will conduct an analysis of bikeshare usage and accessibility of bikeshare station locations. Houston trends will be compared to trends in other cites. This research will be used to assist the city and BCycle in decisions about future locations of bikeshare stations. It will also contribute to improved management and operation of the bikeshare system.

Here at the Kinder Institute we consider ourselves experts on cities, but we also recognize the value of other perspectives. That’s why it won’t just be our shop that has access to city data. We want to see what type of creative applications engineers, chemists and other experts across campus can discover. We hope to bring city data to those who’ve never worked with it in the past.

“There’s a deliberate goal of working with researchers who have never thought much about cities before,” Fulton said. “We’ll be able to put their expertise to work on these problems for the first time ever. We’d be crazy to do it all ourselves.”

Growing trend

Other communities have already done exciting work as a result of these academic-city partnerships. As the Kinder Institute’s Andrew Keatts wrote earlier this year:

In Pittsburgh, for instance, Carnegie Mellon University’s robotics institute reduced travel times by 25 percent and emissions by 20 percent by improving traffic signals with smarter algorithms and cameras; the pilot program began in 2011 at 8 intersections and is expanding to 43 intersections.

And at New York University’s Center for Urban Science and Progress … its studies have proposed new city policies for building standards, street-level air pollution, and subway car design to increase rider comfort.

By now, most large cities have rightly realized that big data is something they can’t ignore. We’re excited to be a part of the network of similar partnerships between universities and cities so that we can learn from our colleagues elsewhere and find out how they’re using big data to use solving pressing urban problems.

Today is an age when populations are flocking to urban area. It’s good news for cities. But the trend also adds pressure to communities that are already facing financial strain and dealing with broader issues of inequity.

We believe using data properly can help us find ways to better serve city residents, and thus, maintain the ongoing urban renaissance. We think this is the start of a powerful partnership. By applying Rice’s powerful research methods to the data and knowhow contained within City Hall, we believe we can unlock a new wave of creative solutions for Houston.


City of Houston/Rice Data Partnership from Kinder Institute on Vimeo.

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