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Urbanomics Mobility Project Prompts Efficient Urban Growth, a Healthy Economy

This new data analysis platform from Cubic Transportation Systems, its big data subsidiary Urban Insights and MasterCard aims to fuel smarter, more inclusive cities.

Imagine looking at a once insurmountable amount of data and using it to build a better city. 

In very broad terms, looking to the future for the purposes of city planning or where to put a business has consisted of a series of educated guesses, prior experience and luck. But one partnership is hoping to take the guesswork out of the equation to change the way we build urban environments for the better.

On Tuesday, Sept. 15, MasterCard, Cubic Transportation Systems (CTS) and its subsidiary Urban Insights announced the Urbanomics Mobility Project at Smart Cities Week in Washington, D.C.

The collaboration will take a look at big data, like urban transit trends and spending insights, to map the future of smart cities. From how to schedule public transportation to certain areas of town to drawing in consumer dollars, the project promises to provide valuable data for governments, developers and a host of other stakeholders.

Ed Brandt, executive vice president and managing director of Government Services and Solutions with MasterCard, said the program was born out of the work done with governments following the 2008 economic crisis.

“As we started working with governments, we realized the opportunities were immense. And so we’ve been doing things from helping their procurement processes, to how they pay social benefits, to driving tourism,” he said. “One of the areas that became really clear was the need to make transit more efficient with the huge urbanization going on; transit payers were often very, very manual … and MasterCard with its payment capabilities was recognizing, this is a great way to help support efficiency for government.”

Brandt said the crossroads of transit system integration and big data analytics made Cubic and Urban Insights natural partners for the Urbanomics project. 

Between the flow of anonymized spending data and when and how people were traveling, Brandt said the information boils down to usable, real-world data for both the private and public sectors.

“When we look at the data, you can start to see — for example, take a suburb where you have a group of people that will travel over to another suburb to shop rather than going downtown where it’s fairly inaccessible…" he said. "So if you’re a city planner trying to figure out how you’re going to grow economic activity, attract merchants to open new stores downtown, you need to be able to demonstrate that you have shopping behavior that could potentially be transferred from a suburb back into the city.”

Daniel Collins, general manager of Urban Insights, said the data will help to augment the data cities and stakeholders already have in a more usable way. 

“It doesn’t make the decisions for you," he said, "but it augments your ability to do it."

From Collins’ perspective, the possibility to share well-curated data could also benefit other services, like law enforcement, social services and fire departments.

“I think that the data is going to show you visually and thus pretty powerfully where the gaps in certain types of service provisions are. I’m not just talking about transit; I think you could take this to all types of service provisions that cities are interested in.” he said. “There are all sorts of things that it can support in both the public and private sectors' perspective, and it does it in such a powerfully visual way that it sets planners and analysts off in a specific direction pretty quickly.”

As for where we will see the Urbanomics Mobility Project first, Collins and Brandt say the possibilities are limitless. 

“We are just scratching the surface of where this could potentially go," Brandt said. "That’s what's neat about the partnership with the analytic resources we have at MasterCard, as well as what Cubic has coming together with city planners and figuring out, ‘How do we best take this information and make it really useful for cities?'”

The partnership unveiled its preliminary work within the Washington, D.C., area at the summit, but officials say the potential for implementation exists in both large and small municipalities. 

“There are plenty of opportunities in large urban areas like Chicago and New York or Los Angeles, all of which are probably ripe targets to show the power of this technology," Collins said. "But I think Ed and I both agree that there are plenty of opportunities in cities below that level that have good data and don’t have a way to analyze it deeply with modern data analytics tools."

While the technology is currently focused on providing a fairly broad set of tools for stakeholders, Brandt said they will soon likely be able to target specific, city-specific issues through their continued work with the public and private sectors.  

“It’s only going to happen with a partnership," he said. "We don’t just look at data and sell it to the government. It doesn’t work that way. The data won’t be meaningful. It really has to be a partnership to work through the issues."

Eyragon Eidam is the web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at