Spatial Data for Low Carbon Cities: in Conversation with Iacopo Testi

Spatial Data for Low Carbon Cities: in Conversation with Iacopo Testi

Iacopo Testi is a research affiliate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Senseable City Laboratory) where he conducts research at the intersection of urban sustainability, data science and artificial intelligence. In 2021, Iacopo was nominated “Spatial Data Scientist of the Year” by Carto, one of the global leaders in location intelligence. In October 2020, he was sponsored by the European Space Agency within its Network of Resources (NoR). He is currently an advisor at URBAN AI, an associate at The Smart City Association Italy (TSCAI), and an earth observation data scientist at RHEA Group. 

Q: There seems to be a growing interest in data-driven city planning. Could you briefly explain what it refers to and why it is important from your perspective?

IT: Data-driven city planning usually refers to the concept of taking urban decisions based on meaningful information. As human species, we are producing and collecting an unthinkable and unprecedented amount of data, that, translated into valuable insights, might assist city planners to adopt more informed decisions. Nevertheless, using data to study and design cities is nothing new, as shown by the “Teoria general de la urbanització”, published in 1867 by the pioneer of urbanism Ildefonso Cerdà.

From my perspective, a substantial difference today is made by the type of data we are capable of collecting and one of the biggest challenges that humanity is facing: climate change. As everyone has probably already heard and read, 55 percent of the world’s population lives in urban areas, a proportion expected to increase to 68 percent by 2050. Cities are major contributors to climate change, producing more than 60 percent of greenhouse emissions, but accounting for less than 3 percent of the Earth’s surface.

Therefore, collecting and using hyper-local information in cities is necessary to combat climate change. Furthermore, quantifying and measuring emissions is fundamental to promoting mitigation strategies and unfolding hyper-local solutions to global challenges.

Q: What do you think was the cultural impact of data trends during the Covid-19 pandemic?

IT: One of the first times in history that data was utilized to better comprehend a pandemic’s dynamic was around 1850 in London, when John Snow identified households experiencing death from cholera, discovering the source of contaminated water. Nevertheless, for several reasons, cultural impact did not gain momentum at that time.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, also due to technological advances, data played a fundamental role to shape policies and restrictions in many different countries. Many people all around the world realized the importance of data trends, as their daily habits would depend on those. Most importantly, data collection during the pandemic increased our behavioral awareness, as many individuals would shape their routine according to the number of infections.

Moreover, especially during the lockdown measures, data trends globally displayed a drastic decrease in business activities as well as consistent drops in greenhouse emissions and air pollution. Thanks also to satellite missions, that are constantly monitoring the atmosphere, data trends clearly revealed that it is necessary to find a balance between mobility patterns and emissions to consistently combat climate change, particularly in cities. The Covid-19 pandemic reminded us all that we need to change our daily habits if we want to have a tangible positive environmental impact on our planet.

Q: In your opinion, what is the importance of data visualization and mapping tools for cities and which potential developments do you see in the near future?

IT: Communication tools, visualizing urban data processes or results, constitute a necessary interface between the digital and physical world. Unfolding with visual clarity methodologies and outputs is a fundamental practice not only to convey meaningful messages that need to be comprehended by a non-expert audience but also to allow effective interactions with decision makers.

First of all, an important point to ensure the reliability of communication between the digital and physical world is the implementation of statistically robust validation processes that need to be applied to the data before they are considered for decision-making purposes. Moreover, visualizations need to reflect the intrinsic complexity of cities, considering both quantitative and qualitative information to involve the numerous urban stakeholders, such as communities, policy-makers, city departments, research institutions, subject matter experts, etc.

I tend to believe that a factor that will play a crucial role in the incoming years is the seamless interconnection between policies and data visualizations. This requires an omni-disciplinary approach that speaks the language of social scientists, policy-makers, engineers, designers, planners, etc. to turn interactive cartographies and visualizations into political (from ancient Greek – technique and art to rule cities) instruments to render our cities more environmentally, socially and economically sustainable.