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How to understand and monitor a city data ecosystem to help make better decisions

Tue May 7, 2019
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Open-source tech and open data can help towards zero emission cities

How can open-source technologies and open data help foster sustainable mobility, behaviour and city planning to work towards zero emission cities? This was the question posed at the Zero Emission City event, held in Berlin in April 2019. Peter Wells (Director of Public Policy) and Olivier Thereaux (Head of Technology), who took part in the event, share their thoughts on these topics.

Against the backdrop of the complex workings of a city – the multifaceted and interlinked resources, services, businesses, authorities and communities – a new resource has been introduced: data.

Just as the city is an ecosystem, there is a data ecosystem about and around the city

Data is being generated, collected and shared at increasing rates. Our lives are becoming more and more dependent on its use in services. One simple example would be the use of data in fast moving consumer goods (FMCG). Farms, delivery companies and supermarkets use it to put better and cheaper food on our plates. However, many of us still struggle to understand how data is used and how to get access to the data to make better and more timely decisions.

Just as the city is an ecosystem, there is a data ecosystem about and around the city. It is important to build it as openly as possible to create opportunities for better services, better economies and better societies, but also to protect people from the harm that can be caused by misuse of data – whether deliberate or accidental, eg discriminatory profiling or inadvertent data breaches.

Transport, housing, crime prevention, utilities, education – all of this done at larger scale and density in cities than in rural areas, and the cost of failure is high because of the high number of people affected. There will be multiple public-, private- and third-sector organisations delivering different services in different locations across the city.

Researching data for cities

In our research and development programme here at the ODI we have been working on data practices in local authorities, with a focus on new service delivery. In a follow-up project, we will be focusing on cities and city regions.

Rather than talk about ‘smart’ cities we want to talk about ‘open’ cities

In doing this we want to create a different dialogue about data. Rather than talk about ‘smart’ cities we want to talk about ‘open’ cities. We believe that by engaging with decision makers, communities and businesses we can understand where data already exists, where it could be created, and how it could be shared and used. We can also consider how more timely and informed decisions can be made when data is as open as possible.

Data ecosystem mapping

There are a number of ways this can be approached. One of the techniques we think could be useful is data ecosystem mapping. We hope it will help people – whether city policymakers or others – understand what is already happening with data in a city.

This technique draws on ideas from rich picturing, systems thinking and value network analysis to develop an approach for mapping data ecosystems. By creating a visual map that illustrates how data is being accessed, used and shared by a variety of organisations, we have found it is easier to explain the ecosystems that exist around products and services.

By helping us explain data ecosystems, mapping helps people and organisations reach a common understanding about them. And that makes it easier for people to make decisions.

Mapping the data ecosystem in a city is hard, but potentially very rewarding

We’ve previously used data ecosystem mapping in the geospatial sector, looking at bits of the ecosystem like UK flood data and the data used by Niantic’s Pokemon Go, and in the agricultural sector, for example to help people and organisations working to increase agricultural productivity by developing a soil information service.

Mapping the data ecosystem in a city is hard, but potentially very rewarding. Thinking about and considering the many actors is part of the complexity but also part of the opportunity to shine a light on who is doing what with data, when, why, and for what purpose.

Data and zero emissions

As outlined above, the event we attended in Berlin focused on sustainable mobility and moving the city to zero emissions.

There are many cities working to achieve zero emissions, for example Amsterdam, Oxford, the City of London, and the newly built Masdar City in Abu Dhabi.

The plan for Masdar City was originally announced in 2009, yet in 2018 it was reported that only 10% of the expected population were living in the city. Clearly it is hard to sell the idea of moving from consumption to conservation in this scenario of a brand new city. And in existing cities, transitioning to zero emissions is a large change and an activity that takes time. After all, the behaviour of many of the people and organisations in a city needs to change.

Long-term activities like this also require city authorities to think of a range of techniques – from hard interventions like regulation, through to softer interventions like using public procurement to buy from green businesses, or building public awareness campaigns.

Cities need to use data to predict whether these techniques are likely to be effective; to apply and use some of the techniques; and to understand if they are actually effective when they meet the real world, real humans and the complex ecosystem that is a city.

Data observatories

Without diving into all the detail, a technique that’s useful here is a data observatory. There are typically many actors interested in a thing – a data observatory can be a useful structure to pool effort to collect data or information about it. For example, gathering data about emissions so that policymakers can design better interventions or assess if their current ones are having any impact.

In our recent work on the peer-to-peer accommodation sector (a largely urban phenomenon), we gathered insights and recommendations about data observatories, which can be broadened to many other sectors:

  • local government officials should create environments that can support the development of data observatories
  • stakeholders with similar needs should develop data observatories collaboratively
  • local and national government officials should engage with different stakeholders to inform decision-making related to the impacts of peer-to-peer accommodation

The data observatory doesn’t need to be a physical thing or a technology platform for sharing data – that’s ‘smart’ city thinking, jumping straight to a tech answer rather than thinking about what’s needed. Instead it might start as an organisation, or a group of people that agree what data will help tackle a problem, who then gather the data and share it as widely as possible. It might grow from there, but it should start small.

You don’t need all the data

One of the things the data ecosystem mapping and observatory might identify is that some of the necessary data isn’t available. You may need to persuade people to gather and help make data available.

Sometimes that data shouldn’t be available – it might be illegal or unethical to collect and share it. Data Protection Impact Assessments, our Data Ethics Canvas, and talking with people to hear their views should help cities understand those issues.

In other cases it could or should be made available. Our data access map might help you understand the range of models available to do that, and our work on risk and re-identification can provide guidance on releasing data through anonymisation.

But in some cases you might think you need the data, but actually you don’t. Perhaps an extra bit of data will only get you from 94% to 95% accuracy. Is that really worth the cost and risk of collecting more data?

It might seem strange to hear a data organisation, one that believes in a world where data works for everyone, say that you don’t need all the data. But it is true.

There is a balance to be found between increasing the openness of data, and trustworthiness. If we don’t find that balance we risk moving to what we call the data hoarding future – where organisations hold on to data because they think it should only create value for them; and/or the data fearing future – where people and organisations hold on to data because of fear of the harm that it could cause.

Finding that balance is another long-term project, just like reducing emissions in cities. It needs to happen globally, nationally and locally. The biggest challenge for cities that want to build better urban data infrastructure is finding a balance that works for everyone.