CityScienceLab Hamburg shows how urban data makes cities smarter

Prof. Dr. Gesa Ziemer designs data-based future scenarios for urban development
12 November 2021

The CityScienceLab at HafenCity University Hamburg explores urban data to investigate how digitisation can change cities. In co-operation with the MIT Media Lab and further partners from politics, business and science, the research institution develops digital city models – so-called CityScopes – to analyse urban development processes. The goal is to strengthen collaboration between different urban development stakeholders and to make cities better places to live – with data as a tool. Prof. Dr. Gesa Ziemer, CityScienceLab Director and academic lead at UNITAC Hamburg, a technology lab of the United Nations (UN Habitat), told Hamburg News how that can work. 

Hamburg News: The effects of digitisation are all around us – in our private lives and at work. How does this affect the CityScienceLab?

Ziemer: Digitisation is central to what we do at the CityScienceLab: on the one hand, we look into the influence of digital technologies on society. On the other hand, we use digital tools ourselves to process urban data and apply it to city planning.

Hamburg News: Urban planning impacts many people’s lives, but it often goes under the radar. What is your role therein?

Ziemer: An important part of our work is to get buy-in from multiple stakeholders. We get experts from various fields to sit down with urban authorities and simulate future urban-planning scenarios based on data. That helps us answer highly specific questions. What happens to a city, for instance, if its population were to increase? That is a very important issue for urban centres as it can affect property prices, green space planning, schools and traffic in a whole bunch of ways. Our simulations help stakeholders with decision-making and, of course, includes residents also.


City Scope
© Benno Tobler
City Scope Hamburg-Rothenburgsort

Hamburg News: The CityScienceLab talks to both urban agencies and local residents. How does that work?

Ziemer: Yes, that’s right. Communicating with local citizens is indeed an important part of our work. Locals know their city really well so they can point out problems or suggest possible solutions, for instance, when a certain traffic light is causing problems, or when it comes to identifying the most appropriate modes of transport. We use civic participation events to get residents involved, and this is where we can put our data analyses and visualisations to good use. That’s how we got people involved in the Finding Places (refugee accommodation) project, the housing project in the Mitte-Altona district and the Grasbrook port.

City Science Lab
© Walter Schießwohl
Residents become involved at touch-table

Hamburg News: What specific digital tools do you use?

Ziemer: Our large touch-tables are very popular. They allow us to map data interactively, that is, create maps that reflect participants’ individual preferences. We are also engaged in developing online platforms, civic participation tools, data management systems as well as applications in augmented and virtual reality.

Hamburg News: Data are valuable assets, but are also subject to strict protection laws. How do you handle that? 

Ziemer: Data protection can be complicated for sure. And yet it doesn’t tend to be an issue for us because we work with open-source programs and publicly available data from the City of Hamburg. We believe that open, accessible urban data are essential in a modern, digital and democratic society. Hamburg already has a very high standard in this regard. 


Hamburg News: In what way? What is special about Hamburg?

Ziemer: The City of Hamburg provides excellent public-data infrastructure in terms of both collection and accessibility. The Hamburg State Office for Geoinformation and Surveying is responsible for collection and scans the city to gather information on buildings and surfaces. Traffic infrastructure such as traffic lights and junctions, as well as the port and smart homes also generate useful data. The City of Hamburg stores all of this on an urban data platform that is open to the public. The local "Transparency Law" makes this possible, which is unique to Hamburg. So it’s not a question of whether we have enough data, but rather a question of how to make use of such data. 

Hamburg News: And that’s where you come in …

Ziemer: That’s right. We try to join up the dots between data sets for socio-political purposes at the ScienceCityLab. And we do that with fairly specific use cases in mind. First, our modellers evaluate the data. Then, we present it in an appropriate form, for instance, as a data story – a data-based visualisation of a narrative. Data stories are a big help in understanding pressing issues and developing potential solutions based on relevant data.     

Hamburg News: The ScienceCityLab is an important port of call for many people in urban planning. 
Do you maintain any long-term partnerships?

Ziemer: We actually collaborate with a range of facilities, companies and start-ups. For instance, we are now doing a project with Google that involves collecting data on air quality for urban planners. Other examples include our "Connected Urban Twin" project, a digital 3D model of Hamburg that allows us to visualise and simulate urban development schemes in collaboration with the cities of Leipzig and Munich. In that context, we are also going to work with a number of start-ups some of which specialise in virtual reality and that helps us visualise our data. 

Prof. Dr. Gesa Ziemer
© Benno Tobler
Prof. Dr. Gesa Ziemer

Hamburg News: People often talk about smart cities of the future. What trends do you think are going to be important for Hamburg in the coming years? 

Ziemer: To stress the idea of public involvement, we actually prefer the term "digital city" to "smart city". Today, innovations are not generated by new technologies alone. Instead, it is becoming more and more important to integrate innovative processes in a way that benefits society at large. Cities are producers of Big Data, and here it is key to link data sets to facilitate collaboration between different stakeholders. When looking at urban development from an international perspective, which is something I do as part of my work with the United Nations, we should always keep in mind that everyone should be enabled access to data and meaningful technologies. If only privileged individuals take part in digitisation, this will give rise to social inequality.

Hamburg News: Many thanks for the Interview, Prof. Dr. Ziemer.