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Empowering Cities & Citizens Through Data

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City data can be defined as all of the information that is gathered by the various systems and departments across a city – as you can imagine that is a lot of data. Transport data, energy data, pollution data and much more. Cities have been gathering this data for years, but they have not always been making the most of it.

Data analytics is a mature business operation in most medium to large private enterprises, but because of the way that cities are setup they quite often do not share data with other departments that could make use of it. This data could be used to improve citizen services, make the city healthier or very importantly help to shape future policy.

Recently a lot of smart cities have taken the step into open data. This means that they have opened up a lot of their data to the general public, companies can then use it to create applications and services that the city does not have the capability or resources to do so. If you go to any city that has one of these open data platforms then you will be able to find many 3rd party applications for transportation and other city functions. These applications mean that citizens now have the opportunity to make the most of the data that is generated by the city and this should in-turn lead to an improvement in the quality of life.

There are complications with this though. The city is quite happy to open up all of the data so that 3rd parties can create the apps – these apps are then used by the citizens and generate a lot more data about the particular service that the app provides. But who then owns that data? In theory it is the 3rd party app provider as they are the one that has created it, the real smart cities have opened up their data, but also insisted that anyone that uses the data to provide services, must then provide certain parts of this data back to the city. It is a tricky legal minefield that any city must look at carefully before opening up their data!

With the rise of the internet of things and other new technologies cities are now gathering more data than ever, so it is up to them to make sure that any sensitive information is stored securely and not susceptible to hacking. Imagine if a hacker or terrorist was able to hack into a city’s traffic systems, they would not only be able to steal a lot of sensitive information, but they could be able to re-direct trains or traffic to cause crashes or congestion – the latter could then be made a target for bombings or stabbings, like we have seen in France, Germany, Russia and UK in the past year. Security of data systems for all cities must be of paramount importance.

There are other positive aspects to city data that can be used to engage with citizens, for example: in Boston they created an app and online system that allows citizens to report minor problems to the city. So, when you are walking along and you see a pothole in the road you can take a photo of it and send it to the city with a location stamp. This information can then be used by the city and they can schedule for the pothole to be repaired. Such forms of engagement give citizens a sense that they can have a positive impact on their city, all through a click of a few buttons. These types of initiatives should be encouraged in cities across the world so that data is used to make a difference to all citizens and to provide decision making information to city administrators.