On a platform in Hoboken, NJ, looking out across at the Manhattan skyline, Dr. Steven Koonin and a group of fellow researchers spent time taking a few infrared (IR) thermal images. Back at the Center for Urban Science and Progress, Dr. Koonin and his team compared the difference between two images taken consecutively to examine what changed in that short period of time. In one difference image, they noticed a cloud of pollution pluming up from one structure. By examining the cloud of pollution, they were able to determine that the chemical being released was acetone; they assumed the source was a nail salon. However, after some investigating on Google Earth, they determined that the building was actually a dry cleaners’ shop. Suddenly, the members of CUSP were able to analyze the business activity this store received on a daily, monthly, or even yearly basis with no need to implement sensors and no need to request permission from the store’s owners or anyone else – they were simply observing.

Dr. Koonin joined NYU three and a half years ago after leaving a position as the Provost at Caltech and previous roles as a physicist both inn the Obama administration and the private sector. On Oct. 5, 2015, Dr. Koonin visited NYU Shanghai to discuss the new Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP) at NYU that he has been instrumental in developing. Started on April 23, 2012 in association with the NYC Applied Sciences Initiative, CUSP is a partnership between six universities, eleven companies, four laboratories, and thirteen New York City departments (including the NY & NJ Port Authority and NYC Transit Authority). The partners provide assist with projects by problem-solving and analyzing data. Currently CUSP is a one-year Masters’ program in Applied Urban Science and Informatics, beginning with its first class in 2013 of 23 students and growing to 87 students in the current class (along with 10 New York City employees enrolled part-time). The students come from 34 different academic disciplines, all having proven their capabilities in their respective fields with high test scores.

While at CUSP, students examine two intersecting themes: big cities and big data. There are a few important questions to be answered, such as how to document the “pulse of the city” and how do “macro observables arise from micro behavior?” They collect data from organic data flows (such as records, transactions, or media feeds), sensors, and “novel” sensor technologies. This data can help improve the government’s role and efficiency, promote civic engagement, aid the private sector in developing services, and advance a revolution in the social sciences. More specifically, CUSP is working on projects that can improve energy efficiency; they gather data for these projects by, for example, analyzing lighting in various NYC buildings, applying infrared thermal imaging to examine heating and cooling structures, urban planning, or analyzing cell tower records or taxi cab routes. CUSP is in the process of building the facilities necessary for these projects: a data warehouse, a quantified community, and an urban observatory. CUSP is also committed to the privacy of the citizens of NYC. They limit the number of pixels per window in their images and perform an aggregate and de-identified analysis of their data.

CUSP’s plans for the future include defining urban science, building a world-class center to train several hundred people in the field, commercializing CUSP technology, building new technology, and franchising the brand globally. Most admirably, however, CUSP will tackle “projects that impact NYC and its citizens’ lives.”

This article was written by Allison Chesky. Send an email to managing@oncenturyavenue.com to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Tirza Alberta

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