What has open council data ever done for us?

Explore England: an example of what you can do with the data. Image: Illustreets.

It’s been nearly a year since Eric Pickles, the UK’s Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government issued a policy statement  requesting that local councils open up their data to the public.  

Since then, progress has been slow – but there has been progress. A number of cities (Manchester, Leeds, Cambridge, London) have published open data sets. But without a common access point, or a declaration of available data like the Open Data Census in the US, it’s hard to know how many.

The big question now is: is transparency enough?

Boris Johnson thinks so. In October this year, London’s mayor, a keen advocate of municipal open data, launched London’s second data store. At the time, he said it would provide “a wealth of material that the world's brightest minds will be able to use to develop new insight and apps that can be used to solve the big city problems”. The inference is that if you open the data the developers will come.

Perhaps he is right: London’s first open data store gave rise to the increasingly popular Citymapper app that now covers 13 cities in Europe, the US and South America.

Once upon a time such complex problem solving would be the domain of the sort of people who broke the Enigma code. Today, though, there are businesses, organisations and local hacking groups of all sizes answering the call and pouring over these now freely available local data sets. Civic hacking nights or hackathons –lots of very clever techy people eating pizza and drinking sugar, while building local apps and data visualisation tools – were born in US cities such as San Francisco and Chicago. But they’re established in parts of the UK, too.

According to Tom Cheesewright, a technology futurologist for Book of the Future, this is inevitable given the nature of raw data. “Who other than engaged city-hacker types are going to make use of the data unless it is expressed in a form that is valuable?” he asks. “Without that the data is pretty exclusive, restricted to council managers and those with the technical knowledge or financial interest in doing something with it.”

There’s a disconnect here. The coalition is encouraging councils to be transparent and accountable and publish open data. And yet, the majority of residents, almost by definition, can’t spend their time pouring over these raw data sets.

“It absolutely is too technical,” says Richard Speigal, chair of independent community group Bath Hacked, whose goal is to translate raw data into useable local apps and web sites. Unlike its equivalents in many other regions, Bath Hacked actually owns the data store, and works closely with the Bath & Northeast Somerset authority. This relationship, argues Spiegal, that gives the local council a bit more perspective on what residents actually want from the data.

“We’ve kept our feet on the ground, worked hard to establish strong community links, used a data store that's open to non-developers and also include a learning track in our events,” he adds. “This has given rise to hugely popular, very simple local tools with tangible benefits: Bathonians can now find a parking spacea place to not get poisoned, see air quality throb or explore their city through the ages. A local startup has already increased sales with open data.”

It’s the sort of return Boris Johnson would be proud of: no one seems to be doing more than Bath Hacked. But where is the value? It costs money to install data stores, and pay staff to release and manage open data sets. Sometimes, the costs run into seven figures. So where’s the return on investment?

 “Quantifying the [return on] civic open data is inherently difficult,” says data expert and evangelist Owen Boswarva. “Personally I'm comfortable that taxpayers are getting value for money from open data, even if the evidence base is a bit amorphous. It's hard to isolate the effects of open data on growth and efficiency within a city economy, but that's equally true of many other policies and inputs.”

For the moment, frontline apps and visualisation services are acting as a shop window. “The area in which open data has most economic potential is location intelligence,” argues Boswarva. “Addressing, geolocation, maps and so on. Local authorities have numerous datasets of this type but are unable to release them as open data because they contain information derived from Ordnance Survey's detailed mapping and address datasets.”

The solution? “We need government to release those key national datasets as open data so that cities can in turn release the local datasets that derive from them.”

It’s worth mentioning a few examples. The London School Atlas is useful for parents but incomplete. While it maps schools, it says little about school attainment – which is, one assumes, what parents really want to know. A standard of living app analysing local areas for crime rates, house prices and amenities, such as illustreets’ Explore England, has obvious value, particularly if you are looking for a new place to live.

There is also live data on river levels, such as The Gauge Map from Shoothill: handy for knowing when to get out the sandbags. In the US there is even a dangerous dogs map in Austin Texas. The only limit, it seems, is imagination.

This whole process is forcing local authorities to change their mindsets – but whether it’ll make them more accountable is not exactly clear.

“It won't happen until local authorities have a mature open data policy, rich data platforms and an engaged community who are prepared to delve into the data,” says Speigal at Bath Hacked. “We concentrate on patiently building the component parts, confident that transparency will come. But to say it happens quickly would be lying. It’ll take years.”

 

 
 
 
 

“This is a civic pride for the digital age”: why we should why we should willingly let City Hall have our data

He was the future once: David Cameron discusses smart cities with Angela Merkel and a German technology executive. Image: Getty.

Victorian England. From the shadows of wealth grew poverty. Slums slumped against symbols of civic pride, cowering next to towering town halls funded through rich merchant princes, whose elitist rule was insufficient to deal with too many people in too few houses with too little infrastructure.

Enter municipality. With darkness came electric light; with disease came tunnels to disperse their cause; with time came reform, regulation and the rise of town planning.

It’s over a century since those places which first industrialised became those first urbanised; yet even the wealthiest cities in the world continue to struggle with the complexities of urbanisation. In London, ten thousand die each year from pollution; in New York, six times this amount reside in homeless shelters.On the rush-hour roads of Sydney, cars stand still, and in the ‘burbs or banlieues of Paris slums still stand.

An umbrella bought during a downpour costs more than one bough under blue sky – and the truth is that, for too, long city halls have failed to forecast and so incurred greater costs. It’s a reactive culture summed up by words first head in Jimmy Carter’s budget office: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Disease before sewer, gridlock before investment, collapse before rebuild – visible fix over unseen prevention

But with the world’s urban population growing by 65m every year, this has to change: there is not enough resource to manage cities reactively. Enter technology and the move to smart cities.

From Barcelona to New YorkOxford to Amsterdam, Singapore to Seoul: billions of low-cost devices are being installed into everyday objects to send and receive data: street lights recording pollution, and bridges reporting performance; traffic lights that count, and whose analysis will be counted upon, to ease traffic congestion; health wristbands understanding our heart’s needs, shop ceilings noting our heart’s desires. A web of information woven into the very fabric of cities which, when added to data from sources like mobile phones, is providing a living-breathing picture of how we and our cities operate.

This data is no longer retrospective or historic but live and dynamic. It is of such quantity, and can be analysed at such granular detail, that it can provide certainty where once there was only supposition. It is build-up before the gridlock, illness before epidemic; the crack of an ageing bridge, the first signs of smog. It is diagnostic to preventative. Umbrella under blue sky.

Those promoting the “internet of things”, estimated to be worth $11.1trn a year by 2025, will declare it a panacea – but it is not, at least not entirely. Sure, challenges regarding data quality, privacy, standardisation, and security will be overcome; 4G will become 5G will become 6G. Devices will communicate intelligently with each other – autonomous vehicle to autonomous vehicle, autonomous vehicle to bridge, drone to home. Data will become as fundamental to cities as infrastructure, and will be referred to as such.

Yet city halls in democracies, whilst infinitely better informed, will continue to make their decisions which are restricted by commercialism, framed by political ideology, and driven by short-term electoral or media pressures.


People first

From the mid-sixties to the start of this century a UK television programme called Tomorrow’s World showcased future living. For every correct prediction (mobile phones) came countless incorrect ones: the floating-bicycle, say, or paper underwear. My point is that only a small part of understanding the future of cities is about understanding technology. The majority is about understanding people and society, the people from whom the very word “city” is derived: civitas, the collective of citizens.

Gutenberg did not change the world by inventing the printing press in the 13th century – but he did enable the world to change. The technology was the printing press, the outputs were books filled with knowledge, the outcomes were the actions of the many who used that knowledge. Technology is a tool, a process towards an outcome. 

In much the same way, the Internet of Things will not change the world – but it will enable the world to change. Sensors are the technology, data the outputs, the analysis of this data and subsequent decisions, the outcome.

It is crucial to avoid the Tomorrow’s World approach. That is, racing to implement technology first without consideration of identified social, economic or environmental needs; introducing more complexity when most citizens seek simplicity. As the writer and urbanist Jane Jacobs once said:“First comes the image of what we want, then the machinery is adapted to turn out that image.”

Start with people. Form the image. Think of technology through the Greek origins of the word, techne and logos – a discourse about the way things are gained – and capitalise on collective intelligence to move towards that image.

Since cities first started to appear some millennia ago, they’ve provided incontrovertible evidence that the wisdom of crowds is far greater than the individual; that collective intelligence gained from that trinity of city institutions – citizen, government, industry – surpasses what can be achieved by any one in isolation. Where would Apple, Uber, or Google be without the government-backed inventions like the world-wide-web, touchscreen technology, WiFi or global positioning systems?

A new civic pride

Of course, an app on a smart phone that can ask a thousand questions is meaningless if nobody feels motivated to answer. Increasing urbanisation brings increasing interdependency: lives intrinsically linked, services shared. The challenge for city halls is to turn the increase in what people have in common, into an increase in common purpose, through understanding the three benefits that motivate and lead to action.

Extrinsic benefits, of status and reward, caused merchant princes to fund city halls in Victorian England: such benefits today see the ambitious putting in extra hours. Intrinsic benefits, like competitiveness or fun, that once caused business tycoons to compete to build the tallest skyscrapers, now explain why “hackathons” and “city challenges” are such a success. Then there are the pro-social benefits of altruism or benevolence, that cause millions to volunteer their time to give back and feel part of something bigger than themselves.

These motivations are of greater significance, because there are no longer people with clipboards standing on street corners asking permission to collate our views on services: it is happening automatically through the Internet of Things. Our choices online, movements offline; the travel we take, the pollution we make; our actions and interactions. We are data.

City halls can take a click-box-small-print approach to this, like so many apps. But there is opportunity to do the opposite. They can promote the fact that citizens can knowingly provide their data towards making lives better; visualise and enable citizens to see and understand their input, alongside data provided by others.

They can incentivise interaction with data, so that entrepreneurs can work back from outcomes, solve challenges, and re-localise where appropriate (we should not need a multinational to get a taxi). They can be proudly open, enabling citizens, industry and government to receive pro-social benefit by contributing to something bigger than themselves: their life and the lives of others.

This is a civic pride for the digital age. Not just localism or patriotism based on geography but the strength of connection between people and their ability to direct and determine change through data. Not just pride in the buildings and infrastructure that form our physical world, but in the quality of data that will shape our future world and move us from a diagnostic to preventative society – umbrellas under blue sky.

We should take pride in technology, yes; but that should come second to the pride in those who, enabled by that technology, drive progress. Who, through the wisdom of crowds, form an image of the future and strengthen democracy by motivating society to move towards it. Who embrace openness and help overcome the challenges of urbanisation.

Kevin Keith is a writer, researcher, urbanist, and director of the southern hemisphere’s largest open data competition, GovHack. He tweets as@KevKeith.

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