Tall Ship in Chicago's Harbor

eScience and a Tale of Two Cities

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…

By Elizabeth Leake, STEM-Trek

More than 200 million copies of A Tale of Two Cities have sold making it one of the most popular novels ever written. Charles Dickens’ fictional classic, about the lives of people in two great cities during the years leading up to The Revolution of 1789, wasn’t published until 1859 when several regions were, once again, facing social upheaval. Perhaps those who bought the book hoped it would provide insight since history, as reliable as death and taxes, has been known to repeat.

Due to science and engineering advances, 20th century citizens were healthier, well-traveled, and far better educated as a whole. Cities were more thoughtfully designed to address contemporary lifestyles and comparatively peaceful. Until recently, urban planning involved more reacting than proactive preparation.

More than two hundred years later ‘best and worst of times’ also describes the situation for today’s urban planners who face serious challenges. Twenty-first century demographics are shifting at a rate that is extremely difficult to manage. The global population is exploding and agricultural efficiencies result in fewer living in rural areas. Many cities will double in size in the coming decades, and others will shrink. Our world is more interconnected and mobile. An economic downturn in one city or region eventually impacts all others. People are more likely to move to another country when they can’t find work. For those who remain, a jobless culture is fundamentally linked to crime and a host of physical and mental health problems—all quality of life concerns for urban planners.

Today’s urban planning involves the intelligent use of data from a variety of local, regional, national, and global sources. Because urban data is completely heterogeneous with multiple geospatial levels that change with time, city planners’ success relies on access to and thoughtful analysis of records from the past, present, and projected future. Healthy urban infrastructure attracts commerce which makes cities more competitive in a global marketplace. Industry brings jobs and technology brings industry.

Two urban data projects were presented at the 2012 IEEE International Conference on eScience—an annual point of convergence for communities of research that span disciplines, laboratories, organization­s, and national boundaries. The projects reflected a range of urban concerns from conference host city Chicago, U.S. and Melbourne, Australia. They weren’t delivered in the same session, or even on the same day. The point is they were both present. Urban planning might be a multidisciplinary new kid on the research block, but its data-driven eScience could set standards that others will find useful in the future.

Chicago and Melbourne are as distant as two cities can be and still share the same planet. Chicago’s population and geography is about twice as big as Melbourne’s, but both cities are multicultural microcosms of the world with a number of distinct ethnic communities therein. Each is a national port for commerce and culture, with access to world-class education, recreation, music, and art. They originated during the same period and feature architectural examples of the innovative use of materials that weren’t available until the turn of the 20th century—relatively young, compared to most large cities in the world. Positioned on shorelines with rivers running through their hearts, water offers additional transit, commercial, and recreational possibilities that aren’t available to land-locked cities. Although residents of the Midwestern U.S. are more worried about snow than bush fires, similarities outnumber differences when it comes to the concerns of Chicago and Melbourne citizens.

Although Melbourne was named the world’s most livable city in 2011 by the Economist Group, some fear their rank will be difficult to sustain with its rapid population growth and urban sprawl—conditions Chicago is all too familiar with. Their geo- and demographics are quite different today than they were 50 or even 10 years ago which affects housing, education, utility consumption, public health, transportation, recreation, public policy, governance, employment, logistics, commerce, and much more.

“Designing and operating cities using open data” was the title of the Chicago panel presentation moderated by Charlie Catlett (University of Chicago/Argonne National Laboratory-U.S.). John Tolva, Chicago’s Chief Technology Officer; Daniel X. O’Neil, Smart Chicago Collaborative Executive Director; and John Ricketts, CTO Industry Products/IBM Software Solutions completed the panel. By publicly sharing a rich collection of data, Chicago has fostered a marketplace of third-party applications that are useful to residents. A citizen science component allows people to report a variety of real-time events and conditions using mobile devices, such as traffic congestion, hazardous winter driving conditions, and abandoned properties.

On January 22, 2013—the day after his second inauguration, U.S. President Barack Obama declared June 1-2, 2013 as the U.S. National Day of Civic Hacking. Chicago and other U.S. cities will host events where software developers, technologists, and entrepreneurs from America’s education, industry, and research arenas can collaborate in an effort to identify data-driven solutions to urban problems through the use of open data.

Within a broader eScience technical session about data infrastructures, Gerson Galang (Melbourne eResearch Group) demonstrated the Australia Urban Research Infrastructure Network (AURIN). AURIN is a five-year, $20 million Australian Education Investment Fund (EIF) project. Its technical infrastructure development is led by Professor Richard Sinnott and the Melbourne eResearch Group at the University of Melbourne. AURIN is focused on framework, not the data itself, although several of their stakeholders share their data.  Their scope is extremely broad and reflects the challenges of living in past, current, and future planned urban environments. Their partners include Australian government entities, including their bureau of statistics (census), health, and transportation agencies. One AURIN function plots the political affiliation of Melbourne citizens. Another assesses residents’ quality of life, by neighborhood and district. Knowing whether or not people feel as though they lead balanced lives helps planners determine if citizens’ emotional and/or physical health are at risk so services (spending and placement) can be prioritized.

Chicago and Melbourne are both concerned with a growing number of obese children—a problem with lifelong health consequences and tremendous cost to society. Each is addressing the issue in a slightly different way.

walkable region of Melbourne suburban area.

Image courtesy of AURIN

AURIN tracks body mass index (BMI) above a given level by age group and place of residence (anonymously). They then identify clusters with elevated BMI’s. From this information they can ask the important questions: Are there are too many fast food restaurants? Would children be more active if there were more parks and sidewalks? Do they feel safe? AURIN’s Walkability Index determines the most pedestrian-friendly areas. The figure illustrates a walkable region of Ballarat—a town west of Melbourne. The red line indicates a 600m safe, comfortable, and convenient walking zone.

image showing regions that lack stores larger than 2,500 feet in Chicago--food deserts

Image courtesy of C. Catlett, UChicago

Chicago used similar data to identify food deserts, or geographic regions that lack grocery stores larger than 2,500 square feet. Smaller retail stores typically sell less nutritious food items—packaged food that is intended to have a long shelf life typically has more calories, fat, and preservatives. They also noticed a higher incidence of diet-related illnesses in these areas, such as diabetes. By overlaying income data, they can determine where high and low-end retail establishments are most likely to succeed.

One of the best outcomes of multinational, multidisciplinary conferences, like IEEE’s eScience, is the cross-pollination that takes place—ideas, innovation, tools, and data. While the technical infrastructure exists to enable sharing among cities and geographically-distributed partners, there are still back-yard barriers to engagement. Whenever personal information is concerned, most have unique laws to protect the privacy of individuals—especially when involving biomedical and financial data.

Photo of Ian Foster“eScience is exploring ways to facilitate sharing that consider the physical, geopolitical, and legal requirements of all partners. In the future, we hope to see more standards-based and sustainable data management models.”

eScience Conference Chair Ian Foster (University of Chicago/Argonne National Laboratory, US)

The 2012 eScience conference was co-located in Chicago with the ninth annual Microsoft’s eScience workshop, the Open Grid Forum OGF36 meeting, DELSA Global, and the Twelfth Annual Global LambdaGrid (GLIF) Workshop.  eScience 2013 will be held in Beijing, China, October 22-25.

To learn more about the Chicago and Melbourne projects, visit their web sites.



  1. Paul Kleban

    I really enjoyed Ms. Leake’s article , “A Tale of Two Cities.” It has certainly brought more insight to what global dilemmas, different geographical locations are facing yet has well outlined the similarities between regions regardless of their geographic distance between one another. I am interested in seeing the commonality different technical entities will take regardless of their philosophies or vast distances of geographic location.

    • Thanks for your feedback, Mr. Kleban!

      I’m very glad you enjoyed reading “eScience and a Tale of Two Cities.” You might also enjoy following news about the UrbanCCD project. I wrote about their February (USRCN) kick-off meeting in the piece entitled “Chicago liberates data; becomes multidisciplinary urban research testbed.” Please let me know if you like it!

      Thanks for following STEM-Trek!

      Elizabeth Leake

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