The Understanding that Creates Better Cities

We’re in the middle of an increasingly complicated and contentious conversation about data, its ownership and its uses. As individuals, we increasingly see the kind of data gathered by big technology firms as a threat to our privacy, especially as the commercialization and commodification of that data has given rise to new forms of governance and economic power, especially in cities, as outlined in the theory of surveillance capitalism devised by the social psychologist and Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff.

As important as that conversation is, it does cast a shadow over data in general and distorts, at least in terms of the public perception, the good that data can do, particularly when that data is made public and openly shared. In recent weeks we’ve put the spotlight on Think City’s first Malaysia Business Community Pulse Check Report, focusing on the downtown areas of George Town, Kuala Lumpur and Johor Bahru. And in the process of speaking to Think City’s Aishwariya Krishna Kumar about the Homeless Services Registry with NGOhub, we also discussed the basis for that project, the Registry Week Report, a data survey that canvassed and assessed the vulnerability levels of homeless individuals in KL’s downtown district.

With the release of a new Geographic Information System (GIS) study by Think City, mapping land surface temperatures in several Malaysia cities, we spoke to Joel Goh, a Senior Analyst at Think City about the growing importance of data analysis to the organization and its use in shaping urban strategies and policies.  

Why is the Data and Analytics Pillar such an important part of Think City’s work?

Joel Goh: I was thinking about this question. I’ll give the analogy of buying a car. When you buy a car, you don’t necessarily go straight to the shop and buy the first car that the salesperson recommends. You do some online research [and] decide whether it makes sense to buy a brand-new car or a second-hand car. You ask your friends opinions; you look at different brands and models, the pricing, what fits your budget. 

You do all of that to buy a car. To improve a city, which is even more complex, you would want to collect all the data possible, to better understand the issues at hand and what options are actually available. 

At Think City, we don’t just develop urban policies and strategies, we actually implement them though our programmes and initiatives. And to do that successfully, we need to be able to measure change and the impact of these initiatives and to measure all of this data. We need to learn what works, what doesn’t work and build on our mistakes.

Without data we wouldn’t know where we’re going. So, we take an evidence-based approach, and the Business Pulse Survey is one example. So before embarking on any project, especially complex projects, we want to start off with a baseline study to understand existing issues; to understand what may work, what may not work. We look at socioeconomic data, spatial data, we do GIS analysis. We support our colleagues on, things like climate change, placemaking.

Some of our past projects include things like conducting studies on the B40 community, [that is] low-income communities, in Malaysia. We do financial and economic modelling. We do scenario planning, market studies and strategy development. We use machine learning for spatial analysis. A lot of this work is not publicized, because some of it is confidential for our clients, and it supports the work of our colleagues behind the scenes. 

Data, especially Big Data is often misunderstood by general public, especially in the current context of the big technology companies and debates around privacy. How does an organization like Think City use its data?

Joel Goh: I’ll give you an example of a business use case. So, you have a lot of businesses, like Grab, banks, telcos, Amazon, Lazada that are collecting data in order to [make predictions] about you as a customer, as a consumer. So, there’s a classic example of a retail store, Target, in the United States, where they were able to identify customers who were likely to be pregnant through the types of products they were buying. They could then use that information to target these pregnant customers with specific promotions. 

So, going back to Think City and our urban work, before we are able to use data as a predictive tool, first we use data to better understand existing trends and correlations. I would say that, not just in Malaysia, but everywhere in the world, our understanding of cities and urban dynamics is still fairly primitive. We live in what we call a VUCA world. A world that’s volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. In order to navigate a VUCA world, the more data we have, the better [our] understanding. 

Although people may be unpredictable to a certain extent, I would argue that people are still predictable in many ways. If I took a hammer and hit your hand, you’d be in pain and shock and you’d be pretty angry with me, so I don’t have to conduct an experiment to know that. But say you win the lottery tomorrow; I know you’d be pretty happy. If I were to go back and talk to you in a year’s time, probably your level of happiness will have reverted to the mean. People on an individual level may not be predictable but on an aggregate level [they are] predictable.  

In many situations if you consider the bell curve, or a normal distribution, the normal distribution applies where most people are centred towards the mean or the middle, with small numbers of outliers on the high and low ends. In understanding how people are distributed according to their behaviour, it allows you to make certain predictions. Another approach to this is nudge theory in behavioural economics. In the UK, this was popularized by the government’s Behavioural Unit, where certain minor [policy] tweaks could cause a significant impact and measurable change.

There’s a lot of debate about the ethical issues [involved in] nudging people, using data, for lack of a better word, to manipulate people. In Think City’s case, take the Business Pulse Survey as an example: while we collected specific data from individual businesses, we don’t publish [it with identifiers]. We look at that data in the aggregate and we publish the results accordingly. We’re very careful in how we use and manage the data we collect as an organization. 

The question is, how does an organization like Think City, where we have limited resources, collect the data [we need] and collaborate with the private and public sector to get more data? Ultimately, the more data you have, the more insights you gather from combining different datasets. 

To that point about increasing data inputs; we’ve seen open and public data projects gathering pace across the world. Is there enough open data in Malaysia and what further steps would you like to see to democratize more information?

Joel Goh: The short answer is that, no, we don’t have enough open data in Malaysia, but almost everybody acknowledges this issue, and agrees that it is a problem. So, there has been some shift in the right directions, for example, there is public data from the likes of the Department of Statistics. They’ve tried to increase the level of access and openness and the granularity of data and the timeliness of data. That’s pretty commendable. Often, it’s still not at the right scale or granular enough. We may have things like literacy rates at the national level or the state level, but if you dive deeper down, you don’t have the data at the district level or the neighbourhood level. That granularity of data is one aspect.

Another is the frequency of data: how recent it is. Ideally you want to have access to real-time data or near real-time data. In Malaysia, we have many government agencies and private companies that have amassed a wide range of available data. For example, the Tax Department (Lembaga Hasil Dalam Negeri): they hold a lot of valuable data that could be used to better understand businesses in Malaysia. But often these forms of data are not available publicly, or where they are, they’re sometimes expensive to purchase. 

Those are some of the limitations. If you compare the Malaysians experience with say the UK, where you have the Freedom of Information act, anybody, any member of the public, can write to the government and request access to specific data and the government is required to respond [subject to the limits of the law]. In Malaysia, there are [understandable] issues with resources and priorities. So, you can understand why we may still have a long way to go to achieve that.

In terms of Think City, we are working on a Malaysian cities report and an accompanying [data] portal. The idea is to present the data in a well-visualized manner and to have a proper narrative and storyline [attached] to it. You can have all the data in the world, but there’s no point if there’s no clear understanding and communication of the data to policymakers and the general public. 

To that point about creating the narrative, how is data helping to shape, influence and increase the effectiveness of the work that Think City is undertaking?

Joel Goh: We look at things from a holistic perspective. At Think City we have a multidisciplinary team. We are able to understand urban issues from different angles using different lenses. [Which gives us an entire toolkit of approaches and perspectives]. That multidisciplinary perspective allows us to be more careful in how we interpret the data at hand and use it to overcome our existing biases and different agendas. We have architects, we have climate change specialists, we have economists and more. It allows us to use an evidence-based approach to the strategies and programmes we roll out in cities around Malaysia.

You can access a new climate change study, Think City’s Land Surface Temperature Maps here. An audio version of this interview with Joel Goh is available on the Reflexive City podcast.