Hudson Yards is one of the hottest real estate developments in New York City right now. Located on the west side of Manhattan, the project, which includes office towers, apartments, shops and luxury hotels, is about to add its newest tenant: an urban lab that will be run by New York University’s Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP). The lab will blend science with technology — including sensors — to collect data from the Yards site to measure traffic and pedestrian flow, energy use and environmental conditions.

The project is part of the emerging field of urban informatics. “It is the field fueled by the advance of digital technologies — sensors, wireless communication, storage and clever software — that makes it possible to see and measure activities in an urban environment as never before,” reported The New York Times.

CUSP is one of several research organizations that have emerged in recent years to tackle the problems of urban living that new digital technologies can impact and hopefully improve. Up the road in Cambridge, Mass., MIT has its SENSEable City Lab, which studies the changes that are occurring thanks to sensors and handheld electronics. The focus is on how data collected by sensors and used by citizens in an open environment can help researchers understand and address urban issues, said Carlo Ratti, the lab’s director. “Sensors allow us to better understand reality, catching the pulse of the city,” he said. The MIT lab has conducted research in Seattle, Copenhagen and, most recently, in Singapore.

In Chicago, the Urban Center for Computation and Data, a joint initiative of the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory, is pursuing interdisciplinary research into the science of cities, trying to anticipate the effects of rapid urbanization on the climate and the people who are living in cities in ever greater numbers. Like CUSP, the center focuses much of its work on its host city. Chicago has a similar massive development project under way, called Chicago Lakeside Development, a 600-acre site that will eventually house more than 600 buildings. The center is working with the city and developers to better understand how changes in the project’s design will impact the environment and energy use. Much of the data collection will come from sensors, according to Director Charlie Catlett.

But these research organizations and the urban labs they run could be more than just platforms for studying urban informatics, according to CUSP Director Steven Koonin. He thinks they could serve as an alternative way for cities to develop sensor-based applications without going through a costly project with a technology firm. “City agencies that don’t have the resources to do analysis on their own, could align themselves with an academic and research organization for help,” he said.

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Tod Newcombe  |  Senior Editor

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology and a columnist at Governing magazine.