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Dr Timea Nochta, Department of Engineering

Deciding our (urban) futures: the role of data and digital modelling

Modelling’ has been at the front and centre of the UK government’s coronavirus response. The past few weeks has seen mainstream media outlets bombarding the general public with constant news about different models developed by various research groups – and the diversity of scenarios and projections these models produce based on the underlying data and assumptions. These reports emphasise the surrounding uncertainty both in terms of the quality and the reliability of the available data to feed the models, as well as context-sensitivity – that modelling projections, and the algorithms they are based on, are not readily transferrable from one country to another. Population density and age demographics have been shown to be important, but it is suspected that socio-cultural factors (for example, related to local practices of caring for children and the elderly) are also likely affecting the spread of the virus and its outcomes.

Today people understand much more about these issues than even a month ago. Last year, the Digital Cities for Change group at the Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction (CSIC) conducted a study into the use of urban modelling tools as part of the currently popular ‘smart city’ agenda. Naturally, these digital city models, despite their significant impact on urban planning and management policy, have not made it into the mainstream news nor most people’s everyday discussions. The smart city agenda however provides a backdrop for increasing interest in and appetite for digitalisation and data-driven decision-making in the urban context. Will this unfortunate ‘crash course’ into the ups and downs of data and models help to facilitate more informed and participative debate about the role and use of data and digital models in deciding our urban futures? I certainly hope so.



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