An innovative research project from the Urban Big Data Centre is collecting 'big data' – combining large and diverse sources of data – to create a detailed picture of Glasgow, helping urban planners and local authorities to find the best policies.

Building a picture of a dynamic and complex city can help policymakers, businesses and communities develop effective solutions to the challenges faced by cities in the 21st century.

"Faster urbanisation, ageing population, pressure on public spending and sustainability concerns; these are only some of the challenges facing our cities," says Professor Piyushimita (Vonu) Thakuriah, Director of the ESRC-funded Urban Big Data Centre.

"Our researchers are asking the hard questions around these challenges, such as how can we prepare our cities better for the future; how can we deal with economic, social and environmental shocks; how can cities respond to the needs and experiences of people who live, work and travel there?"

The centre's Integrated Multimedia City Data (iMCD) platform is a collection of multiple sources of data that are helping to understand how the city of Glasgow really functions. They draw on information such as representative surveys completed by residents, data from networks of sensors monitoring traffic, environmental conditions and pollution levels, still images from citizen 'life-loggers' (volunteers wearing cameras), textual and visual social media, GPS tracking data, and city-wide remote sensing and commercial databases.

The overall purpose of the platform is to support innovations for urban living. Data is being collected as people move about their daily activities, such as work, education, rest, leisure and shopping, and against a backdrop of factors that can include energy consumption, traffic flow, air quality and weather patterns. The data from individuals are collected in confidence to avoid identification, and on a voluntary basis.

"This platform offers a view of the city of Glasgow with a level of detail that has rarely been available previously, and is intended to be an example of the kinds of linked data needed for comprehensive understanding of a city," Professor Thakuriah explains. "The project sees social science researchers and data scientists work hand-in-hand to create, uncover and weave multiple data strands from a variety of sources to reflect the complexity of city life."

Knowing anonymous details of how residents move about and from which districts, what activities are being undertaken and at what time, can help urban planners, local authorities and government agencies make informed policy and practical decisions that can benefit the whole community.

The data can, for example, reveal the most popular route cyclists take on their way to work to avoid breathing in traffic fumes, or identify the neighbourhoods of Glasgow that exercise the most and at what time of day this occurs. The iMCD can help analysts find out where residents with different levels of literacy and learning engage in civic activities and their preferences regarding environmental sustainability, use of information and communications technology, and a myriad of other factors supporting urban resource management and social policymaking.

"We're receiving requests for iMCD data from businesses and local government agencies. It's being used to adjust regional travel demand models, remote sensing applications, and estimate the city's ranking on a 'busyness index' – among other administrative and business uses," adds Professor Thakuriah.

What the iMCD project is bringing to light about Glasgow is an example of what could be done in other cities in the UK and across the world. By combining wide-ranging existing data, supplementing it with new data collections, and revealing new insights, policymakers, researchers and businesses are being better equipped to tackle the challenges all cities face – including transport, education, housing, environmental sustainability, economic development and social exclusion.