Open data could help to accelerate the development of smart cities by connecting the people most capable of creating smart city solutions with the data needed to generate and support them.
What is Open Data?
An overwhelming amount of data is being generated by both public and private concerns on an ongoing basis. This data is stored beyond the reach of most people, secured in government or proprietary databases or on individual electronic devices. The types and the depth of this data is growing as new and increasingly technological solutions are implemented to solve the problems of the governments, businesses, and private citizens of smart cities.
The potential advantages of data collection on such a scale are beyond question. Data collection is the most laborious part of any investigation, and yet the majority of global data is going largely unseen and unused. Limiting the number of people who can access it necessarily limits the number of problems to which it can be applied and, in most cases, prevents access to the people best able to apply it.
The solution to this is to make the data publicly available via an open government approach: open data.
What Form does Open Data take?
Open data projects collect either full data sets or metadata from existing databases, often from multiple sources, into huge, searchable databases or archives of different types of machine-readable media.
In order for large amounts of data to be used effectively, however, allowing public access is just the first step. Turning data into information is done by asking the right questions, and being able to find the relevant data to answer them. This requires the creation of user-friendly search tools to navigate those databases effectively and, increasingly, mobile access solutions. Open data therefore takes the form of portals and apps that allow people to filter for the data relevant to their problems, and which help them to apply it effectively to implement smart solutions.
The organized development of these solutions is often promoted with a cash incentive:
- Scoping the problems faced by citizens of smart cities either follows or coincides with targeted app design contests aimed at solving them. Contests run regularly in the USA are mainly hosted at the local government level, with different cities implementing different competition formats.
The first of these city-run competitions was ‘Apps for Democracy’, held in Washington DC in 2008 to leverage the city’s 200 recently opened datasets, catalogued by third party company iStrategy Labs. The city sourced sponsors to provide USD $50,000 in prize money for the top three apps, but a total of 47 successful designs helped to raise over USD $2.3 million for the city itself. This concept has since expanded into the creation of a ‘National Day of Civic Hacking’.
- Hackathons can be organized on local or international scales. They connect software and interface engineers, designers, policy-makers and subject matter experts for the purpose of developing new software that can leverage big data. Open Data Day, run yearly in March, co-ordinates such events held around the world to develop open data into useful smart city solutions for target areas. In 2017, the areas were open research data, public money flow tracking, open data for the environment and human rights.
- XPRIZE runs competitions such as the Big Ocean Button Challenge, where teams present designs for apps that would exploit big open datasets with a particular focus. XPRIZE allows the public to vote for their favorite app, essentially polling the relevance of each concept to the global community.
A subset of open data is the concept of ‘MyData’ – an individual’s personal data collected by another party but made freely accessible to the individual, including the likes of healthcare records, police records, or home energy and water usage statistics. This data can be aggregated and analyzed to compare with the same types of data from other people, or used to correlate individual behaviors with their outcomes.
Aside from open databases and apps, social media and government census logs can be considered semi-open data sources.
What Benefits can Open Data offer?
The major benefit of open data is its role as an enabler. It places key information into the hands of the people who have the problems – the citizens of smart cities – and those with the ideas and technical knowledge required to solve them. Open data projects therefore hold great potential to provide citizen-centric solutions, optimizing smart city services according to the needs and preferences of the local people, in alignment with geographically differing customs and policies.
Open data has the advantage of being cost-free with unlimited usage rights, removing two major barriers to progress. It can lead to new innovations driven by big data analytics, providing:
- greater transparency and integrity of the public sector
- the possibility to track public money flows
- market insights, illuminating current and historical trends, which can be correlated with information on social, political, and environmental climates
- the ability to recognize, respond to, or even predict changes in real time
- estimations of the impact of different types of change through modelling and simulation, and the ability to test those predictions with a high accuracy depending on the amount of data available
- increased productivity via the streamlining of processes and services, by allowing the easy identification of inefficient or ineffective practices
- a reduction of environmental impact by simplifying the identification of its sources, and by aiding in the compliance of existing projects, services and infrastructure with environmental regulations
- tailored solutions, allowing similar problems to be addressed across different legal frameworks and different demographics
All of these benefits could lead to economic savings, with the potential to generate new and increased economic revenue. A McKinsey report of 2013 estimated an added annual value of over USD 3 trillion globally with the following seven key areas as targets for open data projects: education, transportation, consumer products, electricity, oil and gas, healthcare, and consumer finance. The report also identified consumers as having the most to gain from open data.
On the scale of the individual, open data can be used to make more informed financial decisions, and to feed apps which allow smart solutions to the problems faced by large numbers of people across different demographics at the same time, such as real-time traffic information enabling the re-direction of vehicles away from heavy congestion, construction or accident sites.
For businesses, open data is a cost-effective resource to combine with proprietary databases, to inform effective practices and to tailor new and existing products and services based on consumer trends, as well as identifying finer market segments and successful marketing strategies.
On a governmental level, open data can be exploited to direct improved city planning and job creation, the modernization of education and healthcare systems, and could help to pinpoint inefficiencies and inequalities in the delivery of basic services and facilities.
Location-based open data could also suggest sustainable solutions to address the problems of an ageing population, urban migration and climate change, to deliver solutions which will have a positive economic impact.
Open Data in Action
The World Wide Web Foundation’s Open Data Barometer provides a measure of how successfully different countries are engaging with open data. It looks at the impact of open data initiatives, assessing how effectively a country involves its citizens to generate smart solutions. The current edition estimates that only 7% of global government data is open, and only half is machine-readable, making the rest effectively unsearchable.
Below are some examples of different types of open data initiatives from various locations:Data.gov (USA)
This initiative was launched in 2009, and currently allows free public access to over 190,000 data sets. Public engagement is encouraged by providing tools for web and app development and hosting discussions on how to make the most of what’s on offer.La Base Adresse Nationale (France)
This collaborative open database of highly accurate physical locations is intended to improve emergency response times.Trafikverket (Sweden)
Trafikverket makes real-time transport data available to companies or individuals upon (free) subscription, which is exploited by third party apps allowing travelers to make to-the-minute transport decisions.Qlue My City (Indonesia)
What Challenges Should Be Considered?
Challenges to the provision and use of open data include:
- Privacy concerns. Anonymity must be ensured and misuse prevented, to avoid the compiling of information about an identifiable individual’s behavior or personal history. Consent may be required to make some data more broadly accessible. This consideration will be impacted by regulations such as the European Union’s ‘right to be forgotten’, and questions remain regarding under what conditions data should be shared and who should have control over sharing them.
- The potential to lose control over confidential information, both on a personal level and a company level.
- The expense of creating and curating an open data portal. While third parties stand to make clear financial gains from successful app development, the return-on-investment for those hosting access is more complex and difficult to measure.
- The requirement that data must be machine-readable. Data which is not machine-readable cannot be readily found by search engines, and is therefore effectively useless.
- The constant updating and promotion of databases and portals, necessary to ensure that they remain relevant.
- Organizational effort must be spent engaging the community in order to generate impact from open data. This will directly affect the success of an open data initiative.
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