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Do cities have access to the private sector data they need to make effective decisions?

Tue Jul 23, 2019
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To help understand and tackle the different challenges they face — from congestion in urban environments to climate change – increasingly, cities are seeking access to data collected by private sector organisations. But do they have the levels of access they need?

To help understand and tackle the different challenges they face — from congestion in urban environments to climate change – increasingly, cities are seeking access to data collected by private sector organisations. But do they have the levels of access they need?

Cities have long built and maintained infrastructure. We depend on their roads, bridges and cycle lanes, as well as their communications networks and other utilities. As our economies and societies become more reliant on data to make effective decisions, cities also have a responsibility to build and maintain data infrastructure that supports their citizens’ needs, values and priorities.

A city’s data infrastructure consists of data that is managed by public institutions such as housing and transport authorities, as well as data collected and held by the private sector organisations that operate within them. This includes data generated by businesses that work with the cities to deliver public services, as well as those that provide services directly to their citizens, visitors and others. Increasingly, cities are seeking access to data collected by private sector organisations to help understand and tackle the different challenges they face.

The Copenhagen City Data Exchange found that ‘it was often difficult to retrieve data from private companies because they viewed the platform as ‘parasitic’

Among businesses, there are varying levels of receptiveness to cities’ advances for access to data. A study into the Copenhagen City Data Exchange found that “it was often difficult to retrieve data from private companies because they viewed the platform as ‘parasitic’ and of no benefit to them.” In the US, Uber’s resistance to the city of New York’s efforts to force them to share data has led to battles in court. Elsewhere, initiatives such as Transport for London’s partnership with Waze, where the mapping company shares traffic data for planning purposes, reflect a more collaborative approach to increasing the flow of data between private sector organisations and cities.

As part of the ODI’s research and development project designed to support cities to become more open, we will explore this topic further by asking:

  • Do cities have access to data held by private sector organisations that operate within them?
  • How do cities access data held by private sector organisations that operate within them?
  • For what purposes do cities access data held by private sector organisations that operate within them?
  • Why do private sector organisations make data available to the cities they operate in?
  • What are the challenges to cities accessing data held by private sector organisations that operate with them?

We have started to collect examples of cities from around the world accessing data held by the private sector, using a matrix inspired by the Cabinet Office Policy Lab’s Styles of Government tool to organise them.

The Google Doc we are using to do this is open. We encourage contributions and comments directly into it – for example, thoughts about the categories we’re using or examples we may have missed. Alternatively, we hope for the document to be useful for others working on and thinking about similar topics.

We plan to have conversations in the coming months with people and organisations involved in data sharing between private sector organisations and cities to validate what we find and add richer detail. We’ll publish our findings openly and also assess whether it would be useful to develop any guidance on the topic.

Ultimately, we hope that the outputs of this work will help cities understand how others gain access to the data they need and inform their own approaches to accessing data held by the private sector. We’d also like it to encourage private sector organisations to consider how they can provide access to data it in order to tackle the big challenges that our cities face.

If you are interested in collaborating with us on our open cities work or need some help facing a similar challenge, please get in touch.