Saturday, August 23, 2014

2014 Workshop on Big Data and Urban Informatics

After more than a year of preparation, the Workshop on Big Data and Urban Informatics was held at the University of Illinois at Chicago on August 11-12, 2014.

More than 150 persons from at least 10 countries (Australia, Canada, China, Greece, Israel, Italy, Japan, Portugal, United Kingdom, and the U.S.) attended the forum sponsored by the National Science Foundation.  

Piyushimita (Vonu) Thakuriah, co-chair for the workshop, reported on the funding of Urban Big Data Center at the University of Glasgow in Scotland (  Its mission is to “support research for improved understanding of urban challenges and to provide data, technology and services to manage, make policy, and innovate in cities.”  The Urban Big Data Center partners with five other universities including the University of Illinois at Chicago. Vonu, a transportation expert, is the director of the center.

In the course of two full days, 68 excellent presentations were made in total, far exceeding the expectations of the organizers a year ago.  These papers will be posted in the web in the near future.  

Two luncheon keynote speakers highlighted the workshop.  

Carlo Ratti presented the state-of-the-art work of the MIT SENSEable City Lab, which specializes in the deployment of sensors and hand-held electronics to study the environment.  Since conventional measures of air quality tend to be collected at stationary locations, they do not always represent the exposure of a mobile individual.  In one project titled “One Country, Two Lungs” (, a team of human probes travelled between Shenzhen and Hong Kong to detect urban air pollution.  The video revealed the divisions in atmospheric quality and individual exposure between these two cities. 

Paul Waddell of the University of California at Berkeley presented his work on urban simulation and dynamic 3-D visualization of land use and transportation.  Some of his impressive work images can be found at  His video and examples reminded me about their potential applicability for creating the “Three Districts and Four Lines” in China’s National Urbanization Plan.  I also learned about a somewhat similar set of products from China’s, a Geographic Information System software company based in Beijing. 

One of the 68 presentations described the use of smart card data to study the commuting patterns and volume in Beijing subways during rush hours.  One other presentation compared the characteristics of big data and statistics and raised the question of whether big data is a supplement or a substitute to statistics. 

The issue of data quality was seldom volunteered in the sessions, but questions about it came up frequently.  Through editing, filtering, cleaning, scrubbing, imputing, curating, re-structuring, and many other terms, it was clear that some presenters spent an enormous amount of their time and efforts to just get the data ready for very basic use.

Perhaps data quality is considered secondary in exploratory work.  However, there are good quality big data and bad quality big data.  When other options are available, spending too much time and effort on bad quality big data seems unwise because it does not project a practical, future purpose.

There were also few presentations that discussed the importance of data structure, whether it is already built in as design or created through metadata.  Structured data contain far more potential information content than unstructured ones and tend to be more efficient and optimal in information extraction, especially if they have the capability to be linked across multiple sources.  

For the purpose of governance, I was somewhat surprised that use of administrative records has not yet caught on in this workshop.  Accessibility and confidentiality appeared to be barriers.  It would seem helpful for future workshops to include city administrators and public officials to help bridge the gap between research and practical needs for day-to-day operations.  

Nations and cities share a common goal in urban planning and urban informatics – improve the quality of city life and service delivery to constituents and businesses alike.  On the other hand, there are drastic differences in their current standing and approach.

China is experiencing the largest human migration in history.  It has established goals and direction for urban development, but has little reliable, quantitative research or experience to support and execute its plans.  The West is transitioning from its century-old urban living to a future that is filled with exciting creativity and energy, but does not seem to have as clear a vision or direction.

Confidentiality is an issue that contrasts sharply between China and the West.  The Chinese plans show strong commitment to collect and merge linkable individual records extensively.  If implemented successfully, it will generate unprecedented amount of detailed information that can also be abused and misused.  The same approach would likely face much scrutiny and opposition in the West, which has to consider less reliable but more costly alternatives in order to meet the same needs. 

There is perhaps no absolute right or wrong approach to these issues.  The workshop and the international community being created offer a valuable opportunity to observe, discuss, and make comparisons in many globally common topics. 

Selected papers from the workshop will now undergo additional peer review.  They will be published in an edited volume titled “See Cities Through Big Data – Research, Methods and Applications in Urban Informatics.”

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Smoking Statistics in the U.S. and China

The U.S. Surgeon General released a landmark report on smoking and health in 1964, concluding that smoking caused lung cancer.  At that time, smoking was at its peak in the U.S. – more than half of the men and nearly one-third of the women were reported to be smokers. 

The U.S. Surgeon General released another report [1] in June this year, titled “The Health Consequences of Smoking - 50 Years of Progress.” 

A time plot based on the recent report [2] shows the trend of one statistic – adult per capita cigarette consumption – for the period of 1900-2012.  It reveals the rise of smoking in the U.S. in the first half of the 20th century, coinciding with the Great Depression and two world wars when the government supplied cigarettes as rations to soldiers.  There has been a steady decline in the last 50 years. 

When the 1964 report was released, an American adult was smoking more than 4,200 cigarettes a year on the average.   Today it is less than 1,300.  About 18% of Americans smoked in 2012, down from the overall 42% in 1964.  The difference between male and female smokers is relatively small – men at 20% and women at 16%.  According to a 2013 Gallup poll [3], 95% of the American public believed that smoking is very harmful or somewhat harmful, compared to only 44% of Americans who believed that smoking causes cancer in 1958.

After the release of the 1964 report, Congress required all cigarette packages to carry a health warning label in 1965.  Cigarette advertising on television and radio were banned effective in 1970.  Taxes on cigarettes were raised; treatments for nicotine introduced; non-smoker rights movement started.  Together laws, regulations, public education, treatment, taxation, and community efforts have all played an important role in transforming a national habit to a recognized threat to human health and quality of life in the last 50 years.  This was beyond my wildest imagination that it could happen in my lifetime.

Statistics has been at the center of this enormous social change from the beginning of the smoking and health issue. 

As early as 1928, statistical data began to appear and showed a higher proportion of heavy smokers among lung cancer patients [4].  A 10-member advisory committee prepared the 1964 report, spending over a year to review more than 7,000 scientific articles along with 150 consultants.  By design, the committee included five non-smokers and five smokers, representing disciplines in medicine, surgery, pharmacology, and STATISTICS.  The lone statistician was William G. Cochran, a smoker who was also a founding member of the Statistics Department at Harvard University and author of two classic books, “Experimental Design” and “Sampling Techniques.” 

During the past 50 years, an estimated 21 million Americans have died because of smoking, including nearly 2.5 million non-smokers due to second-hand smoke and 100,000 babies due to parental smoking. 

There are still about 42 million adult smokers and 3.5 million middle and high school students smoking cigarettes in the U.S. today.  Interestingly, Asian Americans have the lowest rate of smokers at 11% among all racial groups in the U.S.

China agreed to join the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in 2003.  It reported [5] 356 million smokers in 2010, about 28% of its total population and practically unchanged from its 2002 level.  The gender difference was remarkable – 340 million male smokers (96%) and 16 million female smokers (4%).  About 1.2 million people die from smoking in China each year.  Among the remaining over 900 million non-smokers in China, about 738 million, including 182 million children, are exposed to second-hand smoke.   Only 20% of Chinese adults reportedly believed that smoking causes cancer in 2010 [6].

More detailed historical records on smoking in China are either inconsistent or fragmented.  One source outside of China [7] suggested that there were 281 million Chinese smokers in 2012 and an increase of 100 million smokers from 1980. 

China has been stumbling in its efforts to control smoking.

According to a 2013 survey by the Chinese Association on Tobacco Control [8], 50.2% of the male school teachers were smokers; male doctors 47.3%; and male public servants 61%.  Given these high rates for their important roles, there is concern and skepticism on how effective tobacco control can be implemented or enforced. 

Coupled with the institutional issues of its tobacco industry, China has been criticized for its ineffective tobacco control ineffective. While the size of some American Tobacco companies may be larger, they are not state-owned. China is the world's largest tobacco producer and consumer.  Its state-owned monopoly, China National Tobacco Corporation, is the largest company of this type in the world.

Nonetheless, the Chinese government has enacted a number of measures to restrict smoking in recent years.  The Ministry of Health took the lead in banning smoking in the medical and healthcare systems in 2009.  Smoking in public indoor spaces such as restaurants, hotels, and public transportation were banned beginning in 2011. 

According to the Chinese Tobacco Control Program (2012-2015) [9,10], China will ban cigarette advertising, marketing and sponsorship, setting a goal of reducing the smoking rate from 28.1% in 2010 to 25%.

Smoking is a social issue common to both the U.S. and China. 

Statistics facilitates understanding of the status and implications, as well as providing advice, assistance, and guidance for governance.  More statistics can certainly be cited about the ill effects of smoking in both nations.  At the end, it is the collective will and wisdom of each nation that will determine the ultimate course of actions.


[1] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2014). The Health Consequences of Smoking – 50 Years of Progress: A Report of the Surgeon General.  Retrieved from
[2] Ferdman, Roberto. (2014). The young and poor are keeping big American tobacco alive.  The Washington Post.  Retrieved from
[3] Gallup Poll. Tobacco and Smoking. Retrieved from
[4] National Library of Medicine. Profiles in Science. The Reports of the Surgeon General.  Retrieved from
[5] The Central People’s Government of the People’s Republic of China. (2011, January 6) Population of tobacco remains high and not declining; smokers are still over 300 million.  Retrieved from
[6] (2011, May 2). New smoking ban effective in China. Retrieved from
[7] Qin, Amy. (2014, January 9). Smoking Prevalence Steady in China, but Numbers Rise. The New York Times. Retrieved from
[8] China News. (2013, December 31). Survey finds over 60% of male public servants smoke; half never quit.  Retrieved from
[9] The Chinese Ministry of Health. 2013 Report on Tobacco Control in China – Total Prohibition of Tobacco Advertising, Marketing and Sponsorship. Retrieved from
[10] China Women’s Federation News. Banning Tobacco Advertising Cannot be Just Paper Planning. Retrieved from