Magazine article Geographical

The Real SimCity: Digital Geographers Are Using Computer Models to Test out the Possible Futures of Conurbations Such as London in the Hope of Improving How We Plan and Run Our Cities

Magazine article Geographical

The Real SimCity: Digital Geographers Are Using Computer Models to Test out the Possible Futures of Conurbations Such as London in the Hope of Improving How We Plan and Run Our Cities

Article excerpt


'This is the Notting Hill Carnival,' says Professor Mike Batty. But this isn't the West London street party with which most people are familiar--there are no high-volume sound systems, no food stalls selling jerk chicken and no parades of floats overloaded with sequined dancers, just hundreds of little red dots rushing excitedly about on a computer screen.

This computer simulation of the carnival was created by Batty, head of London's Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA), in an attempt to solve the overcrowding problem at one of the world's biggest street parties. Each red dot represents a person and, unlike in real life, t he movements of these virtual partygoers can be manipulated with just a few taps of a computer key.

'If we increase the number of people coming into an entrance, we can see how that would change the crowding points,' Batty explains as he unleashes a herd of virtual partygoers and manipulates where they go by opening up virtual entrances, closing down virtual streets and even changing the parade route completely. 'It's reports all about asking, "What if we do this?", or, "What if we do that?" he says.


Batty is one of a handful of British digital geographers who are creating computer simulations of real-life geographical areas in order to solve real-life problems. The computers analyse data to create rules about how humans or other phenomena behave and then use these rules to predict the future by asking 'what if' questions. Get the answers right--and that's no easy task--and it should enable policymakers and planners to test decisions virtually in order to avoid making potentially costly mistakes in the real world.

The range of questions they can attempt to answer is huge. Which parts of a London will be flooded if the oceans rise by one metre? What will happen to pollution levels if the congestion charge is removed? Where is an immigrant who enters a city today likely to be living in ten years' time? What type of person is most likely to move into the new fiats that are being built opposite my house?

The data can be taken from all sorts of places. The Notting Hill Carnival model was pulled together during 2000 from four sources: a street survey, tube station entrance/exit counts, St John Ambulance and a police helicopter. 'We had a limited amount of data so it produced a limited model; Batty explains. 'But nobody would have thought of doing this ten years ago. We just didn't have the data or the computers'.

At Leeds University, Dr Mark Birkin is attempting to build a hugely ambitious model of the whole of Britain from the 2001 census information, while also creating demonstrators to solve specific problems in the city where he works. 'Leeds City Council is suffering from a data deluge; there are data everywhere about the people and the city,' he says. 'Using models, we can make sense of that data and pick out what's important.'

Stephen Boyle, chief regeneration officer for Leeds City Council, hopes to find out who will end up living in the planned new developments as part of a scheme to regenerate one tenth of the city. Leeds has a large immigrant population and increasing support for the British National Party in certain areas, so it's vital he can attract a mixed population to these developments in order to ensure that the new communities are successful. 'If you have a mix of different incomes, different house tenures, different cultures, you create a more sustainable area,' he explains.

'We're talking to Dr Birkin because we're interested in finding out who will come into these developments and what impact that is likely to have on the area,' Boyle continues. The models are already predicting city-wide trends--a growing immigrant community and an increasing elderly population--but Boyle hopes they can be used to solve more specific problems/At the moment, the jury's out. …

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