Solving Urban Challenges With Open Data

Open data is a important tool for empowering citizens and driving government transparency and accountability. Yet, the analysis of municipal data could also provide new insights into how cities can deal with the complex challenges they face — such as congestion, sustainability, and public safety.

Visualization of traffic flow in Rome using cell phone signal data. Image: MIT SENSEable City Lab

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The open data movement has made a strong case for cities to make their municipal data freely available to the public. Cities that do so get to tap into communities of civic-minded developers that can create useful applications to help citizens learn more about their community – and help make certain government-citizen interactions more efficient. In addition, the transparency and accountability that open data fosters can help build trust between residents and public officials, encourage more citizen engagement, and ultimately lead to more responsive and citizen-focused government.

Obviously, these are all good things. Yet, there arguably exists much larger potential for leverage municipal data to help people get a better understanding about how cities function and behave in order to address many of the complex issues that urban areas are facing.

Both of these themes were the topics of discussion at the first of a series of seminars being hosted by the Personal Democracy Forum in New York, in collaboration with civic journalism and software non-profit Open Plans, and sponsored by AT&T.

At the event, Carole Post, the head of New York City’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (abbreviated DoITT and pronounced “doo-it”), spoke about the city’s efforts to open up its data, and some of challenges it faced as it did so. Emphasizing New York Mayor Bloomberg’s commitment to open data, Commissioner Post described some of the city’s web and new media initiatives, including plans for a second BigApps contest to help drive the continued release of more city data sets.

Still, even with the city’s success with BigApps, she acknowledged the process of publishing municipal data still involved working with each city agency individually to decide what data was appropriate for release, and that the process remains somewhat sluggish. When asked to describe the obstacles the city faced, she cited a number of reasons – including concerns about privacy, institutional resistance on the part of some city agencies, and the procedural constraints that government agencies sometimes face when working with third-parties (particularly around contracting and procurement).

While it’s hard to make the argument that New York City has been a complete slouch when it comes to open data, there were those in attendance who felt the city could do more – especially given that one of the most interesting lessons from the city’s first apps contest was that even the most obscure and esoteric data sets (like the city parks department’s database of tree species) can support useful and popular apps for citizens. Some suggested that the city consider adopting an open government initiative similar to what the Obama Administration has enacted. Indeed, one New York City Councilmember has already sponsored a bill to such effect.

Additionally, there was talk of the role of possible intermediaries that could help city government overcome some of its procedural obstacles and collaborate more closely with developers and citizens generating data and apps. A useful corollary for this might be the existing use of economic development organizations on behalf of cities to support private real estate development. If the city was able to establish an organization outside of its existing bureaucracy that could support the development of its digital environment and experiment with new technologies, it might offer a number of benefits.

While getting more municipal data released can help empower citizens, there’s growing recognition that open data also has a role in empowering governments to better cope with the management challenges that urban areas face. With that in mind, John Tolva, Director of Citizenship & Technology at IBM, talked about how his company’s efforts to create new tools that allow cities to interact with municipal data to generate insights into issues such as traffic, energy use, and public safety.

IBM has been busy repositioning itself for several years around the idea of using the technology and process management techniques it specializes in to help develop solutions for some of the enormous social challenges of the world – many of which are concentrated around cities. Under banner of its Smarter Planet and Smarter Cities initiatives – the company’s engineers have been challenged to come up with ways to use technology and data that to support more informed decision making for city leaders. As one small example, earlier this month the company launched a tool that it touts as a more realistic version of the SimCity video game, designed to highlight many of the difficult challenges facing cities, and some of the ways technology can help address them.

Now, the company is preparing to launch a new Web-based tool called CityForward that facilitates the analysis of various types of municipal data with the intention of generating new insight into old problems. Through data visualization, cross-referencing, and other analysis techniques, IBM expects CityForward to give city managers (along with citizens) the ability to identify previously unrecognized trends in data that could then serve to drive improvements in how policies, plans and processes around urban systems are structured.

To pilot the program, Tolva stated that the company has selected a group of around 20 cities around the world that have already opened up their data, and that the company plans to make CityForward free to use. This will hopefully serve as one more reason for cities to open up their data. Given the efforts of IBM and other civic-oriented and/or profit-oriented developers and companies working to create tools that leverage municipal data, it’s clear that open data ability to offer benefits for both citizens, and city governments themselves, will only continue to grow.

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Tags: new york cityinfrastructuregovernancebig dataappsinternet accessopen govopen cities

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