blog | 12.11.2021 | Joao Porto de Albuquerque

What is the role of urban data in climate action and sustainable development?

UBDC is launching a new research theme on Urban Sustainability & Participation concerned with inclusive data innovations for urban sustainability that support climate action and enable progress towards the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

As the Conference of Parties (COP26) in Glasgow draws to a close, it is clear that there is much to be done to address current inter-related social and environmental urban challenges. Sound and transparent urban data are needed to support data-driven climate action by cities and citizens, which will achieve the transformations we need towards a more sustainable future.

Recognising this, we are launching a new research theme at UBDC on Urban Sustainability & Participation. This theme will develop innovative ways of using digital footprint and citizen-generated data, combined with participatory methods to co-produce localised sustainability indicators. This work will tackle urban challenges such as localisation of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, climate mitigation (i.e. carbon-reduction towards net-zero targets) and adaptation measures to improve resilience to climate-related risks.

In a recent article, we argue that to exploit the full potential of data innovations for sustainability transformations, it will be imperative to rethink the way we see the role of data and consider how they are embedded into concrete transformative pathways. This includes, for a start, a recognition that emerging sources of digital footprint data have untapped potential to plug into current data gaps and support decision-making by individuals, communities, and governments at various scales (from city to international). However, we also need to recognise that social and spatial inequalities are frequently associated with data inequalities, so there is a need to carefully assess the implications of using data for various involved social groups. Going further, we have also argued that the circulation of existing data and the generation of new data can be transformative processes by themselves, allowing mutual recognition of stakeholders and the development of critical consciousness of sustainability challenges. To make this happen, we need to allow for the co-creation of new methods and urban data ecosystems that consciously embed data-enabled transformation pathways in a way that attends to latent challenges of datification such as privacy, ethics and data rights.

Our new research theme aims to address these challenges, building upon the research programme I have been conducting in the past few years on inclusive data innovations based on citizen-generated data and analytics to build urban resilience to environmental and health risks. This includes two projects that have transferred with me to UBDC.

The Understanding Risks & Building Enhanced Capabilities in Latin American cities (URBE Latam) project seeks to expand and refine the understanding of risks, vulnerabilities and potentialities associated with rain-related geohazards in Latin America. The multi-disciplinary research team use a dialogic co-production approach to citizen-generated data that relies upon well-established partnerships with community-based initiatives for local development, education and disaster risk reduction in Rio de Janeiro and Medellín, and with governmental agencies involved in disaster risk reduction and local planning and development. The project has already achieved significant impacts for the partner communities in marginalised neighbourhoods in Brazil and Colombia and is moving towards an exciting final phase, with more outputs coming soon.

The Waterproofing Data project investigates the governance of water-related risks, with a focus on the social and cultural aspects of data practices. The project is being conducted by a multidisciplinary international team of researchers spanning environmental science, social sciences and humanities and including partners in Brazil, Germany, and the UK. The central goal is to develop methodological interventions that transform how flood-related data is produced and flows. This will create new governance arrangements between citizens, governments and flood experts and, ultimately, increase community resilience related to floods in vulnerable communities of Sao Paulo and Rio Branco, Brazil.

As a contribution to the debates in COP26, the Waterproofing Data team has produced a series of important outputs this week. Firstly, we conducted a flood memory contest with schools and launched a series of flood memory documentaries. These present a touching testimony of lived experiences of people living in marginalised urban areas and how they cope with climate change consequences such as extreme rainfall events. Secondly, we are launching a brochure aimed at schools, which describes the project activities and proposes pedagogical activities to be used by students and teachers to embed data generation, floods and urban analytics in the classroom. Finally, we are launching the Waterproofing Data mobile application in partnership with CEMADEN (Brazil’s National Centre for Disaster Monitoring and Early Warning) this week, which is being used by more than 30 partner schools and civil protection agencies in several states of Brazil. In this programme, students learn concepts about flooding risk, vulnerability, and resilience, and also act as ‘citizen scientists’ by generating and analysing data about daily rainfall and flood impacts in their neighbourhoods. This not only helps communities understand the local impacts of climate change but also to design resilience strategies, with the data generated being used to improve the flood early-warning models of our partners at CEMADEN.

I’m thrilled to lead this new theme at UBDC. If you have ideas for potential collaborations for connecting citizens, data, climate action and urban sustainability transformations, I would be delighted to hear from you. I also look forward to reporting more of our work on this theme as it not only generates new outputs (and datasets) but also grows and expands to new projects – stay tuned!

Related resources

Using community data and analytics to build resilience to flooding

  • This article was produced by Futurum Careers, a free online resource and magazine aimed at encouraging 14-19-year-olds worldwide to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEM), and social sciences, humanities and the arts for people and the economy (SHAPE).
Using Community Data and Analytics to Build Resilience to Flooding brochure cover

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Urban Analytics activity sheet cover

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Joao Porto de Albuquerque

Professor João Porto de Albuquerque joined the Urban Big Data Centre in October 2021 as Deputy Director and as a Professor in Urban Analytics at the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Glasgow. João is a geographer and computer scientist with an interdisciplinary background. 

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