How to use big data to create sustainable cities of the future

9 Aug 2023

Dr Marguerite Nyhan. Image: David Jones

Dr Marguerite Nyhan maps interactions between human populations, urban systems and the environment to create healthy, sustainable cities, and she’s starting with Cork.

Currently, about 56pc of the global population live in cities. This is expected to rise to more than 70pc by 2050.

According to the World Economic Forum, cities cover just 2pc of the world’s land surface yet 75pc of the earth’s material resources are consumed within their boundaries. With the future expansion of urban areas, material consumption is expected to grow also.

In light of this rapidly changing demographic, Dr Marguerite Nyhan’s research is especially timely. Nyhan, who is an associate professor in environmental engineering at University College Cork (UCC), uses new and emerging tech “to study and predict interactions between human populations, urban systems and the environment” with the goal of advancing the science of “sustainable, net-zero, healthy and liveable future cities”.

‘Sensors and data from sensors are transforming urban life’

Speaking to, Nyhan explains that her Environmental Intelligence project, which is funded by the Science Foundation Ireland, “harness[es] state-of-the-art technologies, including sensors, largescale digital datasets, artificial intelligence and digital twins” to understand “the dynamics of urban populations and transport systems, the changing patterns of emissions and air pollution, and the varying distributions of green space” in several cities in Ireland and the US.

Nyhan describes this research as “unprecedented” in its “spatiotemporal resolution and scale” as it encompasses “entire cities or megacities”.

‘Analysable and predictable’

In a TED Talk she gave a few years ago, Nyhan said that “sensors and data from sensors are transforming urban life”. She used the example of the famous scramble crossing in Shibuya, Tokyo as seeming to be a chaotic mass but in fact “much of this movement is analysable and predictable”.

Several zebra crossings in Shibuya, Tokyo with many people and large buildings around the roads.

Crossing in Shibuya, Tokyo. Image: © SeanPavonePhoto/

Most of the people in this scene have at least one, if not many, mobile, connected devices which allows their movements to be tracked and analysed. By using this data to develop mathematical models which describe the principles underlying human mobility, among many other data points, Nyhan aims to understand cities, how we use them and how we can improve them.

For example, Nyhan looks at “human exposures to urban environmental metrics and the human health impacts of these exposures”. Air pollution kills an estimated 7m people every year and, according to the UN, it is “the biggest environmental health risk of our time”.

By collecting and analysing air pollution data from a distributed network of small, inexpensive sensors, Nyhan can identify and map pollution hotspots in real time and overlay this data with traffic data and other information. This enables stakeholders to develop informed solutions for targeted areas.

“What this means is that environmental policies no longer need to be static. They can be dynamic and in response to episodes of pollution as they occur,” Nyhan said.

‘Air pollution is the biggest environmental health risk of our time’

Nyhan’s research group is supporting the decarbonisation of cities. One of their projects is part of the European Union’s aim of ensuring that 100 cities are carbon neutral by 2030.

“We are modelling urban emissions in extremely high spatial resolution in Cork City for multiple sectors including transport, housing and industry,” Nyhan says.

“The city will be able to use our detailed emissions datasets and maps as a baseline for developing a climate action plan for striving towards net zero by 2030.”

Education for climate action

Nyhan founded the Sustainable Futures lab at UCC to focus on climate action, environmental sustainability and achieving net zero in industry and enterprise. The lab offers several courses including microcredentials in sustainability for enterprise.

“Through our educational programmes, we are building and fostering a community and a collaborative environment,” Nyhan explains.

“Our aim is to educate and inform sustainability leaders who will catalyse and accelerate change across multiple sectors for a sustainable and net-zero future.”

Nyhan wants to help business leaders to solve the climate crisis “by applying academic rigour to real-world problems” in her engagements with industry.

Before joining the faculty at UCC, Nyhan worked for the United Nations. “In a nutshell, I constructed big data solutions to humanitarian problems,” Nyhan says.

“I worked on refugee settlement mapping using high-resolution satellite imagery and convolutional neural network models. This would inform the optimal distribution of resources and aid on the ground.”

“I also worked on the Data4Refugees project which developed data-driven solutions for improving the provision of welfare, health and educational services to displaced persons.”

Alongside these practical applications of her research, during her time at the UN, Nyhan was involved in “finding safe and responsible ways to use big data and AI for the public good”.

The goals of climate action and climate justice align in Nyhan’s work. Her research is improving our ability to create healthy and sustainable cities for the increasing numbers of people who live in them in an increasingly volatile planet.

In summing up the work of the Sustainable Futures Lab at UCC, Nyhan describes it as “an inspiring, open, collaborative and inclusive place for everyone, in which to innovate new and novel solutions for a sustainable, net-zero and nature-positive future”.

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Rebecca Graham is production editor at Silicon Republic