Q&A: Mapping data can improve sustainability

ASU lecture features professor who says geographical information systems can help transportation

geo data


Sure, Google maps can get you where you’re going faster — but it can also help create a healthier, more sustainable city.

The rise of low-cost geosensors is changing the field of geography dramatically, and Ohio State University Professor Harvey Miller said it’s also “improving the scientific understanding of built environment characteristics that facilitate healthy and safe physical activity.”

Miller will give ASU’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning’s 16th Annual Malcolm Comeaux Lecture Tuesday evening at the College Avenue Commons on the Tempe campus.

With a focus on human mobility patterns, Miller hopes to put the wealth of data being collected through mobile phones, GPS systems and other devices to work toward more sustainable urban transportation.

“It’s a huge issue,” he said, “because humans have become an urban species. Over 50 percent of the world’s population now lives in cities. By the end of this century, that will be closer to 70-80 percent. You can’t have sustainable cities without sustainable transportation.”

ASU Professor Emeritus Malcom Comeaux, for whom the lecture is named, agreed that gleaning big data is making waves in geography.

“There are many jobs in the private and public sector that require GISgeographic information systems skills, and it has had a major impact on the discipline, in both research and teaching,” Comeaux said.

To find out how, ASU Now picked Miller’s brain on the subject in advance of his upcoming talk. Check out the Q&A below for his insights.

Editor’s note: Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Harvey Miller

Question: How is geography changing?

Answer: Geography is going through a scientific revolution. It’s an ancient discipline, it goes back to the ancient Greeks. But for most of the history of geography as a field of investigation, data has been extremely hard to get. Back in the real old days, you’d send ships off in the ocean and wait a year for them to come back with a log and a map of where they’d been. People literally died for geographic information, it was so hard to extract from world.

Now, we’re drowning in data. Physical geography data, human movement data, data from mobile phones, GPS data, geosensor networksGeosensor networks monitor phenomena in geographic space. The sensors can be static or mobile, and can be used to passively collect information about the environment or to actively influence it., etc. You can put low-cost sensors on phones, bicycles or vehicles. You can collect an incredible amount of data about the world.

Also, we have much more powerful tools; computers have gotten much more powerful. So not only is data easier to get but our tools for analyzing data and simulating geographic phenomena — such as people moving through cities — have improved dramatically. It’s a really exciting time to be in geography. A whole new world is opening up to us.

Q: What can we use that data for?

A: A lot of people in cities — policy people, stakeholders — they want to make cities healthier places. They want to design environments that allow people to be as healthy as possible. But they need evidence.

There’s something called a “complete street,” where instead of a street just being for cars, it’s also for bikes and walking. Another design intervention cities are looking at is something called “active buildings,” where, for example, stairs are more prominent than elevators. They’re all great ideas, but they’re expensive and also sometimes controversial, so we need evidence that they work.

In the past, we just didn’t have strong evidence to show that these interventions had an effect because we could only record data at one moment in time and often relied on self-reporting. The problem with that is you can’t show change in behavior longitudinally over time and people tend to wildly exaggerate their physical activity levels.

Geodata is a different form of scientific evidence. Now, when something changes in the real world, in real time, we can track it and analyze how it happened. I just finished a project where I looked at a neighborhood in Salt Lake City, Utah, where I used to live. The city built a light rail line, and we got 536 people to wear GPS receivers to record their location in time and an accelerometer that records physical activity. They wore them for one week before the light rail was constructed, and then for one week after. We measured physical activity levels and time spent doing physical activity, and we found the light rail had a healthy impact.

Cars are like beer or ice cream. They’re fine in moderation, but you don’t want to binge on them.

Q: Have you learned anything surprising from this wealth of data?

A: People are complex. A lot of their behavior can be very counterintuitive. We’re finding a lot of surprising things. Travel is more complex than we assumed in the past.

One example is traffic counter data and air quality alerts. In Salt Lake City during the winter, they have really bad air quality so they use alerts to let people know. We wanted to see whether or not air quality alerts had an effect on travel. Were people actually driving less when the air quality was bad? We found the alerts actually increased people’s driving. The reason is an air quality alert system sends two messages. One is that the air is bad outside, so don’t run, don’t bike. But at same time, it says please be a good person and don’t drive. So people are faced with a dilemma.

Also, near the canyons, where people go to escape the bad air, traffic was worse because more people were trying to get out of the city. So there was a counterintuitive affect.

Q: How do you hope to see data like this affect cities of the future?

A: I hope it makes urban transportation more sustainable. That’s a huge issue because humans have become an urban species. Over 50 percent of the world’s population now lives in cities. By the end of this century, that will be closer to 70-80 percent. You can’t have sustainable cities without sustainable transportation.

Right now, the way our cities work, they’re automobile-dominated. Cars are like beer or ice cream. They’re fine in moderation, but you don’t want to binge on them. Cars are bad for cities, and they’re bad for safety. Somehow, we’ve come to accept a high rate of driving deaths, but we wouldn’t do that if it started happening with planes. We’d be up in arms.

Americans spend more on autos than they do on food and health care. We spend about $10,000 a year on automobiles. This is when the median income is around $40,000. That’s a big chunk of the budget for something that sits empty and stationary for 90 percent of its existence. It’s a real stress on the American household, and it makes driving very socially inequitable. There are better ways of mobility and accessiblitiy.

So I hope this data can help to reduce one of our biggest wastes of energy, biggest costs to health, biggest costs to our pocket books and something that’s changing global climate for the worse.

Q: Would you say services like Uber and Lyft are helping or hurting?

A: I live in central Columbus, Ohio. I drive as little as possible, but I do use Uber and Lyft because I can’t always bike or walk. But people are now buying cars to work for Uber and Lyft, which is another unintended, counterintuitive effect.

Columbus has a Smart City grant, so we’re going to have self-driving vehicles within four years. It’s all really exciting, but you can’t solve a car problem with more cars. You have to create transportation polyculture that offers many mobility options, including high-quality public transit. The most efficient way to move people is rail, but it’s expensive to build. We need to figure out how to build rail to support other forms of transit instead of competing with them.

There’s also the possibility of self-driving shuttles. We used to have something called jitneysA jitney was a small bus or car following a regular route along which it picked up and discharged passengers., but we regulated them out of existence. Mobility should be a service, not something that requires ownership. It doesn’t meant we can’t own cars, but we shouldn’t use cars to do every day mundane activities. They should be for recreation.

Q: What can the average citizen do to help?

A: Move into denser city centers or urban nodes. Live smaller and closer together. I know that runs against the grain of what some people want; some people want huge houses and big lawns, but that’s not sustainable. Suburbs are not sustainable. People have to sacrifice space and move into smaller, more dense, connected housing.

The other thing people can do is contact their local politicians and push for more local transit and biking lanes. We want to get people to bike. For a good part of the year, people should be able to bike. The No. 1 way to get people to do that is to build protective bike lanes. Research shows there’s a large amount of people who would bike if they didn’t have to do it in traffic. Another thing is walkability. A lot of city sidewalks are in bad condition and that does intimidate some people from walking. Those are the kind of design and policy things we need to ask our local city leaders to provide for us.

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