Navigant Research Blog

Using Data to Drive Urban Transformation

Eric Woods — February 1, 2012

As I mentioned in my last smart city blog, one of the biggest challenges to realizing the smart city vision is finding financial models that can enable the transformation in city operations.  This recent Climate Group report highlighted the opportunity offered to cities through better exploitation of one of their most critical and under used assets: data.  The most obvious use of city data is for the city authorities and service providers to become better at collecting, analyzing and acting on information about how the city works.  While public sector organizations – not only city authorities – have gone a long way in creating modern IT-based front- and back-office organizations, they have generally been much slower than the private sector to use the power of data analysis to understand how to improve those processes.  This is now changing, and city authorities are beginning to understand the power of data analytics.  But even with cloud computing and software-as-a-service models helping to reduce costs and speed up deployment, data analytics and advanced information management systems still involve a significant upfront investment, and payback depends on finding efficiencies and improvements in services.  A more radical – but complementary – approach is to open the data to third parties to allow them to provide new services and new insights.  This is one reason why cities are at the forefront of the movement for open government data.

The momentum behind open government data gained significant impetus with the release of President Obama’s “Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government” in January 2009.  This paved the way for the launch of data.gov in May 2009, a web portal that today provides almost 400,000 raw and geospatial datasets and more than 1,000 web apps.  The U.K. government launched data.gov.uk in April 2010.  Both the U.N. and the World Bank are now working to encourage governments around the world to adopt open data policies.  As well as spurring innovation, opening up government data is seen as a means for tackling corruption, increasing transparency and improving accountability.  In July 2011, Kenya became the first developing country to have an open government data portal.

Trying to put specific value on such data is difficult, but a report from the European Commission suggests that opening up public-sector information could be worth up to €140 billion (almost $200 billion) to the EU economy each year.  Cities have been among the most proactive governments promoting the possibilities for open data.  In the United States, cities like San Francisco, New York, and Chicago have launched open data portals, as have London and Barcelona and Helsinki.  A number of cities have also launched developer events and competitions to encourage the creation of new applications that can then be made available on the city website. 

Transparency, Accountability

So why is this important to the development of the smart city concept? Most importantly, opening up data to new uses is a way of refreshing our ideas about the city: how it works and how it could work better.  It also frees up the potential for further exploitation of new technologies such as smartphones and sensor networks.  Open data can also provide a boost to the city as center for software development and other digital industries, as the Mayor of New York has recognized with his promotion of NYC Digital

Chicago provides a good example of what can be achieved.  In January, the city launched a new web site, Chicago Shovels, which keeps residents informed in real-time about the activity of the city’s snow ploughs when the blizzards hit.  In future, it will provide space for coordinating community-based snow-clearing teams.  It also provides additional applications developed by third-parties using the city’s open data sets.  Twoinch.es, for example, alerts drivers of winter parking bans, while WasMyCarTowed.com uses the City’s towed and relocated vehicle data to reconnect owners with their cars.  Sites like Chicago Shovels are not just providing new services, they are also making new aspects of a city’s operation transparent.

The CTO of Chicago has written an excellent blog on the city’s open data platform.  In the post he describes the four principles that have driven the program: transparency, accountability, analysis, and open data.  Looking to the future, he also talks about the emerging concept of the “city-as-platform” – an idea I will examine in more detail in my next blog.

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