Open Data, a New Platform for Cities

Cities can leverage data to implement necessary changes and act as a source for businesses and stakeholders through open data networks. We are already seeing cities that have adopted data analytics open the data to tech firms and developers. This offers a new avenue for further improvement. Moreover, open data increases transparency.

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    Many cities are adopting data analytics to improve public services. Cities are learning that data collected can be used to shorten transit times, assist in the replacement of failing infrastructure, and even make parking easier. In this always-developing technology of data analytics, many cities have already witnessed improvements in services.  At a time when infrastructure funding at the federal level has been cut, U.S. cities are embracing technologies that lower costs while improving services. Global cities are also benefiting from the cost-savings of data analytics.

    Some are claiming that data analysis technologies are creating cities as a platform. Paul M. Davis of Shareable writes that “…cities are embracing the concept of the “city as a platform,” a hyper-connected urban environment that harnesses the network effects, openness, and agility of the real-time web.” I agree that as cities adopt network technologies, they will become platforms themselves. And as platforms, cities can leverage data to implement necessary changes and act as a source for businesses and stakeholders through open data networks. We are already seeing cities that have adopted data analytics open the data to tech firms and developers. This offers a new avenue for further improvement. Moreover, open data increases transparency.

    Some examples of data analytic programs adopted by cities include:

    • San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Authority (SFMTA) has developed SFpark, a tool that helps drivers locate parking spaces in the city via mobile apps. The system uses sensors to detect vacant spots as well as smart meters, which allow drivers to pay with coins, credit and debit, and SFMATA cards. Pricing for parking spots is demand-based, meaning rates vary depending on the time and day. This allows a more balanced approach to parking, with less congestion. Moreover, the SFpark system is open source, allowing developers access to the API (application programming interface). This allows developers to build their own apps that support SFpark‘s goals.
    • In Washington, D.C. officials at D.C. Water have partnered with IBM to develop a water system that gathers data in an analytical system that can show where water line breaks are most likely to occur. This is pivotal for an aging water infrastructure system that serves nearly two million Metro D.C. residents and businesses. In the process, D.C. Water has saved 20 percent in fuel costs, increased maintenance staff utilization by 25 percent, and have been able to fix water line problems before they have happened.
    • Philadelphia mayor, Michael Nutter, launched Phillystat, a performance improvement process that gathers data from city services, such as 311 calls. Through quarterly meetings, city officials review the data and progress toward the city’s goals, according to the Phillystat website. The goals include making Philadelphia a safer city, improving education and health, being a more influential place for businesses, creating a more sustainable, efficient, and effective city.
    • Transport for London (TfL) operates a network that captures data generated by its 270 stations, according to The Economist, which adds that the city’s Oyster Cards allow TfL to monitor where travelers enter and exit the system. Moreover, the Tube’s Wi-Fi networks allows TfL to track commuters and to see how they move through the system. This data allows TfL to see how the system is operating and where improvements could take place.

    In addition to using data analytics for the improvement of public services, some cities are relying on a more bottom-up approach to civil services. New York City, for example, has developed the use of open government to tap into the experience and expertise of the city’s tech industry. The NYC Digital website notes more on how the city’s open government network increases innovation and transparency:

    An Open Government mindset and technology framework enables the City of New York to collaborate with developers to better serve New Yorkers through technology. Open Government systems apply the successful models of technology companies such as Facebook or Foursquare, whose open Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) enable them to exponentially scale services and compound the “network effects” of their platform.

    While open government initiatives are expected to be beneficial for cities, there are some challenges cities must overcome. These include the dire need for infrastructure improvements, the budgeting woes facing many municipalities, and continued high unemployment rates. Paul Davis discusses the challenges awaiting cities and how open data is not a cure-all:

    The policies enacted and implemented in the name of innovation require ongoing debate and scrutiny; open data initiatives and civic apps are not ends in themselves. Despite this, the civic tech movement must play a fundamental role in addressing the challenges besetting cities and their denizens in the early 21st century: exploding populations, crumbling infrastructure, unemployment, even municipal bankruptcy.

    I am happy to see cities moving further into the digital age and embracing data analytics and transparency through open government programs. While data analytics and civic apps are not a magic formula for cities, through these processes we will see improved pubic services and the ability for citizens to have a greater footprint on city operations.