Planning Magazine

What Planners Need to Know about Big Data

Five applications and considerations to help you get started — and prioritize equity and privacy.

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Data from wearables can provide insights on local activity patterns in urban environments. Photo by urbazon/E+/Getty Images.

With dozens of technological innovations on the horizon, now is the time for planners to prepare by gaining new skills and creating the policies needed to implement them.

In an ongoing partnership with the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, APA's Foresight team recently released the 2022 Trend Report for Planners, an in depth look at nearly 100 of the existing, emerging, and potential trends and innovations relevant to planning. Artificial intelligence, automated transportation, and data analytics are just some of the new tools and resources we need to understand — and use in inclusive, equitable ways.

Big data in particular holds much potential for planning. Vast improvements in data collection provide more access to higher-quality, real-time information, while new approaches are being developed to better reflect the diverse experiences and identities of the communities we serve. Together, these advancements can give planners new ways to integrate data into decision-making processes, plans, and recommendations.

To gain a better understanding of big data in planning, start with these five applications and considerations:

1. The complexities of identity

Demographic and population data collection require new approaches to better reflect the diversity of communities. Planning needs to reflect the fact that people hold multiple identities at once (like race, age, gender, ability, and religion) and avoid assuming homogenous groups that have the same values or needs. More dynamic solutions are necessary to help planners adapt or tailor these efforts — especially when it comes to planning with groups that have been underrepresented, underserved, and harmed by policies.

An increasing number of local, state, and federal programs are mandating the creation and explicit measurement of equity, diversity, and inclusion efforts. The related data can be difficult to collect, however, and it can require asking for or inferring personal information, like religious beliefs or sexual orientation. To prepare for these requirements, planners need to reflect on their current approaches to data collection and project evaluation.

Importantly, as part of these efforts, planning education and the profession need to do a better job of recruiting people with a wider variety of identities and backgrounds to better reflect the communities we serve.

2. Scoring systems

Police, immigration officials, banks, universities, and other private institutions are increasingly using scoring systems — ways to measure different social attributes, qualities, and characteristics, often powered by artificial intelligence — to inform decisions, despite persistent issues with bias. If planners begin to use similar technical programs or scoring systems, harmful biases in planning and land use could be further formalized.

Planners should prepare to consider the risks of using scoring systems in their work. For example, using scoring systems can lead to maps that score neighborhoods based on social characteristics and miss other factors at play, essentially reproducing social "blight" maps, which could have harmful outcomes.

3. Crowdsourcing

A growing number of governments of all scales have adopted crowdsourcing, often to increase accessibility for residents and reduce public participation costs. It can be a supplement — or even an alternative — to the use of big data in decision-making or scenario planning that promotes consensus building, learning from local knowledge, and mobilization of residents.

Crowdsourcing can also be a formal iteration of civic tech: Residents can use it to directly provide large amounts of data that reflect their preferences. Planners should prepare for both an increased interest in crowdsourcing from local governments and an influx of new information that could provide different findings than data collected through traditional methods.

4. Wearable tech

Through monitoring and location-based services, data from wearables can provide insights on local activity patterns in urban environments. This information is beginning to become widely available, and planners need to prepare to leverage it, potentially by partnering with data providers.

5. Data protection and privacy

As big data collection and use grows, so do privacy concerns, resulting in the need for more regulation, stated ethical standards, and storage and ownership considerations. Currently, the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation is the strictest such regulation globally. Some U.S. states have also started to implement data protection regulations; the California Consumer Privacy Act is the most comprehensive of these.

As planners gain more access to new kinds of data, they will also need to understand how these data protection regulations affect its use. This will be particularly important when implementing smart city applications to mine data.

Alexsandra Gomez is APA's research associate. This story was adapted from the 2022 Trend Report for Planners.