Towards a global urban metabolism dataset

Published on Jan 07, 2017

We are excited to announce our second Stakeholders Initiative. After our first three-month project focused on Data Visualization, we now launched a new project, running from January to March 2017, around the creation of a Global Urban Metabolism Dataset. In this blog post we will explain why we decided to work on this, and what our long-term goals are.

So, what do we mean with a Global Urban Metabolism Dataset? In the field of urban metabolism researchers often aim to quantify material flows that move into or out of a city. These flows can relate to any type of material or other resource-related flow like water, fuel, emissions to air, or electricity. The goal of such a study is often to better understand the resource consumption and the impact of this in an urban system. The outcome of these studies is a list with numbers and figures. These are often expressed in mass flows (tons or kilotons, for instance) and there are also several indicators that can be calculated to get some overall insights into these flows. Some examples are Direct Material Input (the total of material resources that go into an urban system over a certain period of time), Domestic Processed Output (all flows used by the socioeconomic system that end up in the environment), and the Physical Trade Balance (the physical trade surplus or deficit). There are many other numbers that come out of a study, and it all depends on what the aim of the project is. So when we refer to a Global Urban Metabolism Dataset, we refer to the idea of constructing one single, centralized dataset that has all these numbers (well, at least a lot of them). It is basically one large spreadsheet that includes each data point from any urban metabolism study, linked to the original source and indexed by year and data type. Think of it as one giant index of data that came out of research projects.

Why is this useful? Well, there is a wide variety in methodologies, aims and scopes of research projects. This means that the results of these studies are scattered, often incompatible, and hard to compare. These difficulties notwithstanding, more and more urban metabolism studies have been undertaken in recent years. These studies are often insightful and helpful as standalone exercises. Increasing interest in understanding urban systems to improve sustainability will likely result in more and more urban metabolism studies being undertaken. And that means that it will only become more and more difficult to get an complete insight into urban metabolism research done worldwide. We therefore consider it highly useful to try and collect all this data in one place. And to make this publicly accessible (just like the rest of our site, the dataset would be licensed as open source data). We will always link to the original research and this may be behind paywalls, but we aim to make at least the results easily accessible to everyone. People who are interested in the original research can easily go to the source. There are multiple aims to this work. Firstly, we hope to get a better insight into what work has been done globally, and how consistent the methodologies and resulting figures are. Secondly, we want to give researchers, city planners, students, and others easy insight into the results of a large number of studies without having to do this time-consuming work themselves. We want to make data available with just a few click to anyone interested in this. Finally, we aim to try and compare the data between cities, regions and across different time periods. If there are too many gaps, then we will highlight those to show what is missing.

In addition to these initial aims, we have some other more long-term goals. We expect to find that there is a lack of consistency between studies. Few studies are replicated in different years or at different cities, and methodologies are often different. Having this global, long-term view of things we hope to show researchers that there is a benefit in the replication of studies. It may furthermore be possible to highlight the usefulness of particular frameworks or methodologies to undertake urban metabolism studies, especially if they yield relatively quick results. By showcasing particular studies and methodologies, we hope to encourage researchers and students to undertake more work that builds on work from previous researchers in other regions. This would greatly enhance comparability of data and could possibly yield interesting insights. We may even be able to team up with lecturers and professors at universities, who can include urban metabolism data gathering exercises and analyses as part of their coursework program. Again, by taking methodologies that are not too data-intense or by building on previous work this becomes a more manageable exercise, while contributing greatly to creating a more systematic assessment and expansion of urban metabolism work.

These are some of our long-term ideas but for now, our focus is simple and more to-the-point: we want to go through previous studies and see what data is available. And we need everyone's help! Any researcher, professor, student, or enthusiast can help us in this work. Combing through publications is time-consuming work and we can use all the help we can get. So if you are keen to contribute, be sure to be in touch!