How Behavioral Analytics is Changing Cities

Interana Blog Staff

Cities are fertile ground for data collection and analysis. High population density means there's a wealth of data available and digital technology makes it easier than ever for trends to be tracked. So it's no surprise that across the country — and the world — governments, citizens and businesspeople alike are turning to behavioral data to better urban life.

Tracking traffic and commuter data can help streamline transportation for better energy efficiency and safer streets. Following city development more closely can help identify the next best area to start residential and commercial projects. Far from being best hopes for the future, positive changes like these are already happening.

So, without further ado, here are some of the ways that behavioral analytics has already changed cities all over — and how data will continue to shape metropolises for decades to come.

Tourism: easing congestion and raising profiles

Tourism dollars are a huge source of revenue for cities around the world, so attracting and providing an exemplary experience for travelers is a constant project for most major destinations. Cities have been reliably surveying visitors and businesses about their experience with tourism for years, and the basic demographic data of tourism can be reliably charted. Consider this poll from 2012, which shows a breakdown of tourists' interests in Edinburgh, Scotland:

But better technology allows for more interesting, granular data to be collected about exactly what attracts people to cities and exactly what they do there.

For example, in Spain, a study analyzed previously underutilized anonymized bank card information to classify cities “based on the economic behavior of their residents [... and built] a novel classification of cities across Spain in three categories.” This study found that their categorization based on local behaviors directly correlated to cities' abilities to attract foreign tourists. With this information, cities in Spain can better understand why they're unable to attract tourists and focus on solving root problems that prevent them from engaging with foreigners.

Once tourists are in cities, there's more data than might even be imaginable to collect and analyze. One place that's overflowing with tourists and behavioral data is the Louvre, one of the busiest museums in the world.

The Parisian cultural icon mapped its visitors using Bluetooth censors to understand how the crowd moves through the museum, and understand what situations discourage visitors from staying longer in the museum. They found, among other things, that visitors used roughly the same routes to get around the museum no matter how long their visits were. This might help them, for example, better indicate where lesser-used amenities and paths are to ease congestion.

Public health and safety: where data makes a life-changing difference

Behavioral analytics and public health and safety are a match made in heaven. For example, hospitals monitoring Google searches for the flu were better able to predict surges in emergency department visits.

But that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Take San Jose, for example. The city's Environmental Services Department (ESD) noticed that, with an uptick in residents, more and more trash and large items were being illegally dumped on the streets. This had an obvious ripple effect that negatively impacted residents' relationship with the public spaces in their city and neighborhoods.

The ESD decided to put in place a free and low-cost junk removal and collection scheme that would help residents safely get rid of their unwanted items.

The ESD, the city's Data Analytics team and the Behavioral Insights Team joined forces to determine the best way to get citizens to actually use the program through different wording on announcements. One mailing urged residents to “do the right thing” by following protocol, and the other framed the city's removal services as an exclusive offer.

The results? The mailing that framed junk removal as an offer was 42% more effective than the other mailing — which would result in tens of thousands more pickups of trash in the region. This taps into many psychological principals of advertising, like the allure of free promotions encouraging consumers to pull the trigger. It also gives residents the feel of belonging to an exclusive group, which plays into the psychological ideas behind Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

San Jose junk disposal postcard messaging The postcard with the most effective copy presented removal as an exclusive offer. ( Source)

The healthcare sector can also benefit from behavioral analysis beyond just looking at Google searches, of course. Six cities across the US recently studied rates of HIV testing to assess how various communities were engaging with the practice. They found that rates of testing were higher in cities that had community-level intervention programs in place, proving the efficacy of those efforts.

This type of study can help, not just the cities studied, but cities across the country understand the best ways to encourage HIV testing, bringing better knowledge and lower risk to the whole of city populations. Studies like this are certainly not limited to one city or one disease. Comparing behavioral data in this way is extremely valuable to the public health community that may not have the resources to try out more than one method of prevention or treatment in a given city.

Urban development: how to build the future with behavior in mind

Cities in America (and around the world) are growing. Urbanization is alive and well, and as people move in and around urban areas, development follows closely behind.

U.S. census graph of growing cities Source: Slate

One city that's committed to making smart development is Detroit. Although hit heavy by economic downturn, Detroit has been extremely progressive in their projects to revitalize the area, and that includes looking at behavioral data to develop a smarter city.

Data Driven Detroit (D3) has paired with Community Development Advocates of Detroit (CDAD) to integrate data and on-the-ground projects to uplift the city. Part of this work has included developing “a composite analysis of indicators to illustrate the category, characteristics, and relative strengths of each census block in the city.”

Data Driven Detroit interactive map A map of D3 and CDAD's data that gives an interactive version of their analysis. (Source: Data Driven Detroit)

They use this data to identify the needs of different parts of the city and prioritize development that best suits each area. This helps Detroit regrow as an entire city, together.

Boston, meanwhile, is focusing on rental properties as an area that data can help citizens. Boston's real estate scene has been contentious for a while now, and there's significant work to be done by the city and the state to make sure that the metropolitan region can reasonably develop housing to serve its residents.

But beyond legislation, the city government of Boston has used data to put power in the hands of renters. They've developed a search for housing that helps potential renters understand the history of the property. This can help citizens avoid — and report — potential instances of housing violations and sanitation concerns.

This puts autonomy back into the hands of those who may otherwise have been taken advantage of by landlords and the real estate market, and also helps the city understand which properties are popular and which developers and property owners are only adding to the problem.

This is a level of transparency that's never been so accessible before, and could change the power of renters in cities everywhere.

Transportation: because nobody likes traffic

From bus routes to stop lights to sidewalk widths, cities are trying to make public life better by improving how we get from point A to point B.

In Chicago, they're studying the bike shares, which are growing in popularity in the city. Through their analysis of several years of data, they were able to chart unique patterns of bike traffic on weekdays and weekends, including different demands for biking docks. This data had previously not been available, and it's easy to imagine how new bike share traffic could be used to improve the lives of citizens.

Chicago divvy bikes A screenshot from a city video announcing the beginning of Chicago's major bike share program. (Source: City of Chicago)

Maybe they'll institute pop-up bike docks on the weekend in peak areas, or post officers on busy biking routes during weeknight commutes to lower the number of traffic related incidents. There are any number of fixes that can come from this novel data.

Meanwhile, in Kansas City, things are rocketing towards the future, at least as far as behavioral analytics is concerned. The city as a whole is extremely invested in gathering and utilizing public data to reveal patterns of city life that will better Kansas City for all its residents.

They are collecting data through “smart infrastructure” that expands the number of IoT devices in the city. Interactive kiosks, free city WiFi, and smart streetlights are just some of the new installs.

But one of the biggest projects for Kansas city was their streetcar and transportation efforts. The city makes available to citizens its data around parking, traffic flows and KC Streetcar locations, which can show citizens in real time what's happening on the street.

xaqt Kansas City map An example of live street data in Kansas City. (Source: xaqt)

This allows residents to better plan their movements and creates a feedback loop for gathering more data. When citizens adopt the city's software for checking streetcar locations, for example, the city then knows how many people are thinking about hopping on, where they check schedules, and whether or not they complete a ride.

As the city gathers more data from their smart city, Kansas City will be able to make better decisions about development and improvements to public infrastructure. As the IoT becomes larger, expect cities to invest heavily in smart devices and make decisions based directly on the data they receive from their new, connected systems.

Analytics powers the future

What city governments decide to do deeply affects the lives of all the millions of people that live in that urban area. From housing developments to traffic to better accessibility to public services, data is the key to cities making the best decisions possible for their residents.

Modern city life is ready to burst into the digital space. People are always going to be frustrated with urban life, and the possibility for improvement is huge. Much of the behavioral data and analysis that we're privy to today simply was not available in the past — and it's going to fundamentally change the way we develop cities.

Previous article Blog Summary Next article