My First Day at CUSP

One of the happiest moments of this past year was when I found out that I’d been admitted to the Masters program in Applied Urban Science and Informatics at the new Center for Urban Science and Progress at NYU.  Today I got the first taste of what that means as we started our City Challenge Week.  I met the 24 other students who’ll I will be studying with over the next year and like our director, Dr. Steve Koonin, I was humbled by the diversity of achievement and experience of the students with whom I’ll be attending class.  Not to be ignored, of course, are the very knowledgeable and experienced faculty who will be guiding us in our studies and come from a variety of backgrounds and academic interests.

But first, what is “urban science and informatics”?  As I discussed in a recent blog post, this is data science in the public interest.  At the most basic level, it’s using the same technology that improves click through rates for online ads to better support decision-making at all levels of government.  The constant refrain at CUSP is we’re here to make cities more productive, livable, equitable, and resilient through the use of data, often big data sets that describe how the urban system functions.

Today we started that process by learning first about the city in which we are studying with a wide-ranging lecture from Dr. Mitchell Moss on the history of New York City and it’s place among other cities around the world.  We also learned about the research areas CUSP has already started embarking on after consultation with the various city agencies and industry partners that have agreed to work with the program.  We had presentations from the Mayor’s Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability outlining the work they’ve been doing to ensure the current and future needs of New Yorkers are met through the use of modeling and forecasting, as well as a presentation from the Mayor’s Office of Analytics on their work improving how the city runs by optimizing scarce city resources around problems like building code enforcement, noise complaints, and other urban plagues.

By far the highlight of the day was having Mayor Michael Bloomberg take time out of his schedule to come speak and take questions.  Over the past 12 years, the Mayor has brought a data-driven approach to governing that is a model for future administrations and for city mayors all over the world.  CUSP comes out of the Applied Sciences Initiative that the Mayor championed and I felt this was his way of giving us the charge of making New York City and other cities around the world better through the application of data-driven techniques for assessing and correcting the many problems afflicting urban areas.  It spoke volumes to me about the level of interest, commitment, and even hope, that leaders like Mayor Bloomberg place in the work we’ll be doing at CUSP and in our careers afterward.

Based on my experience so far, I feel that hope is well placed in a group of committed professionals ready to do what they can to make our cities more livable places.  Whatever our background, we’re all united in the belief that the right data can unlock important insights into the operation of urban systems and in so doing, allow decision-makers and citizens to make their cities better places to live, grow, achieve, and succeed.

This experience also led to the first of many lessons I hope to learn at CUSP, which was, when asking the Mayor of New York City a question in a semi-public forum, you suddenly become the focus of many cameras.  I’m just glad I was able to get through my question on the future of the Mayor’s legacy of creating a data-driven decision making model after his tenure expires without looking like a complete idiot.

His response (paraphrased): the infrastructure is in place and likely won’t go anywhere, but the measures of effectiveness are subject to being watered down by future administrations making the data collected virtually useless.  So long as the public demands accurate accounting of their city government, things will continue to improve.

All in all, an auspicious start to hopefully a very productive and interesting year.

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