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Open Data for Cities

How open data can improve urban life

Victoria Boeck
Project Type

Recently, the head of the German Cities and Communes Association (“Deutscher Städte- und Gemeindebund”) caused waves with his pronouncement that German towns should be selling their data, rather than simply giving it away for free. The ensuing conversation has made it clear that despite the open data movement having long since entered mainstream acceptance, many people still remain unconvinced of its value. To that end, this blog post represents an effort to summarize some of the key benefits cities can enjoy by making their data freely available for all to use:

Cities across the globe are committing themselves to the cause of Open Data: most major cities already have an open data portal populated with at least a handful of key datasets, and those that don’t likely have at least publicly pledged their intent to invest in the necessary infrastructure. But it’s not always clear what the underlying motivations for this shift are (or should be) – is this just a case of cities feeling pressured to keep up with their peers, or do cities actually stand to gain from generating and publishing Open Data?

The answer is: they do. Open Data is not just a meaningless badge for cities to wear to show off how “smart” and “open” they are. The generation and publishing of Open Data can have tangible, meaningful impacts on cities and the people who live in them. Here are a few of the ways cities can use Open Data to enact positive change:

To identify and potentially solve social problems

Open Data can reveal specific problems in different parts of a city that warrant a targeted invention. For example, releasing data on where auto or bicycle accidents occur (as well as specific details about the nature of the accident) can enable citizens or organizations to spot intersections that are particularly dangerous. Examples of this include CrashMap in the UK (which creates maps of road accidents based on government-released data) and Bikecolli out of Tucson, AZ. The latter is not actively maintained, but it provides a great example of what kinds of analyses can be conducted with this type of data.

Releasing accident-related data matters, because the mere knowledge that a given area is dangerous for drivers or cyclists might alone be enough to reduce the risk (since people might drive or cycle more carefully in areas they know have many accidents); alternatively, this information can be used to encourage the city to take specific action (such as lowering the speed limit on a certain road or changing the design of the intersection to make it safer). Other types of data that can be useful for these sorts of endeavors are crime-related data and service request data (discussed in the next section). Theoretically, cities could conduct these kinds of analyses on their own without needing to rely on citizens to spot the problems, but releasing the data as open data increases the likelihood that problem areas will be spotted and that the necessary actions will be taken, leading to a better outcome for all.

CrashMap, which uses government data to map road accidents in the UK
CrashMap, which uses government data to map road accidents in the UK

To engage citizens and increase trust

The aforementioned examples also present new opportunities to engage citizens with their communities: releasing data that can be filtered down to specific neighborhoods gives people the opportunity to see what the data means for them personally and gives them new lenses through which to view their surroundings. Such data doesn’t always have to be negatively connotated – for example, it can be as simple as providing a map visualizing how old buildings across the city are, giving residents a new perspective on their everyday surroundings.

The combination of Open Data and issue reporting system standards like Open311 also presents opportunities for citizens to both be involved in and to track problem-solving efforts, which can increase trust and confidence in the government. Cities across the globe have adopted the Open311 standard and provide issue-reporting portals that allow visitors to see existing service requests (usually plotted on a map) as well as the option to download current and historical data on issue requests. See for example NYC311, Mängelmelder Bonn, or Züri wie neu. By publicizing these issue reports as well as the status of the issue (e.g., whether it has been processed by the city or if it has been resolved) and releasing this information as Open Data, citizens can see how well the city is responding to problems as well as identify areas where the same problems seem to be occurring. This level of transparency helps build trust between citizens and the government, as citizens can see that their complaint has been received and that the government is actively viewing and responding to complaints.

The 'Züri wie neu' issue reporting platform
The 'Züri wie neu' issue reporting platform

Citizen engagement doesn’t have to be limited to cases where residents tell the city something is going wrong – citizens can also actively contribute to data generation efforts. For example, cities interested in better understanding how air quality varies across different areas can ask citizens to maintain their own sensors that record the presence of pollutants or other harmful particles in the air. The German website is a great example of this: they are creating a map of how air quality varies across the globe (though most data is centered on Europe) using data generated by sensors built and maintained by private citizens.

To bolster the private sector

In the intersection of Open Data and the private sector, there is the unique potential for Open Data to spur business development. This relationship can benefit cities not just through the general economic benefits that a vibrant and thriving private sector brings to a city, but also through the potential that the private sector uses Open Data to develop products and solutions that can further improve quality of life as well as quality of services provided. In short: it can be a win-win.

For businesses, open geospatial and transportation data are often particularly valuable, since these can be used by companies to create innovative solutions for helping citizens and businesses to plan their movements through the city more efficiently. For example, Bike Citizens GmbH is using geospatial data from cities on their street layouts and road infrastructure to provide optimal routing suggestions to cyclists. They couple this data with user-generated data on biking habits to provide cities with data insights on what bike traffic in the city looks like and, based on this information, how cycling infrastructure in the city could be improved. They are one of dozens of companies featured in the Technologiestiftung Report “Open Data in Practice”, which looked at how Berlin companies use Open Data in their business models. Similar studies have also been conducted by the Open Data Institute – a 2015 report identified 270 different companies using, producing or investing in Open Data; this represented employment of more than 500,000 people and an annual turnover of £92 billion.

Intersection wait times in Vienna, as calculated by Bike Citizens
Intersection wait times in Vienna, as calculated by Bike Citizens

Closing thoughts

Open Data is not a panacea. Releasing an Open Data portal and publishing a few token datasets online will not see cities reaping immediate benefits. But cities that genuinely and thoughtfully commit themselves to the cause can see very real benefits, including improved infrastructure, services and the overall quality of life they provide, as well as a stronger local economy. This is why one of the key goals of the Ideation and Prototyping Lab is to support Berlin’s Open Data ecosystem and to continuously explore the potential of working with open government data. We are planning to intensify our cooperation with the Berlin city administration on the topic of Open Data in the near future – keep an eye out for an announcement in the coming weeks.