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Smart Cities and the open data dilemma

Many city councils are grappling with the big data issue. A key driver for their city to become smarter is to provide citizens with access to data sets that they can use to build new applications and services. As mentioned before, the smartest city will be the one with the smartest apps.

On the one hand a few of the leading cities are throwing their doors open and providing hundreds of data sets to the marketplace, but there are many more cities that still have made only a handful, if any, data sets available.

There are a number of reasons that are stopping local councils from doing this.

Perhaps the most important one is ‘fear’. If you open up your data set people might come across inaccuracies and those who produced the sets will be held responsible for that. This certainly is one of the most important issues bureaucrats in general are worrying about. In order to address this issue the local council will have to lift its smart cities ideas to a strategic level. There needs to be an overall plan – why the city wants to become smarter, what it needs to do in order to get there, and what projects they should concentrate on. This requires leadership from the very top – the council’s mayor and CEO.

These leaders are also the people who first of all should make sure, before council embarks on any smart city initiative, that there is a smart council in place. At that leadership level within a smart council the CEO should lead the open data initiative, and part of any open data policy should be an invitation to all who receive the data to let council know if they come across any inaccuracies. Councils should be upfront in making it a fun thing for people to improve the data set.

It is also critical to indicate that none of the data that is made available is of a personal nature or can be traced back to individuals; it has to be aggregated information.

Another issue is that some councils believe they are sitting on a goldmine and that they could charge large sums of money for their data sets. With very few exceptions (in fact we are not aware of a single one) this is not the case anywhere in the world. The benefits to the city are of a social and economic nature, not financial. This is often a hard reality for councils to accept. Only when cities are approaching the process in a strategic way does it become clear what the real long-term benefits are.

Also what often gets thrown in is privacy and security, and of course this is paramount. There will be some data sets that are simply not suitable for public use and they should be treated accordingly.

However, rather than concentrating on unsuitable data sets, councils should focus on what data sets can be made available without any privacy or security concerns.

Furthermore, many councils are at the moment unable to make their data sets available because of archaic ICT systems that are still in use, a lack of interoperability between ICT systems used by the various departments, and other technical issues. As most councils have been aware of these issues and in many cases the ICT issues are being addressed, the push for smart cities is helping to accelerate these ICT upgrades. The leading smart cities around the world are currently in the process of building open collaborative ICT platforms from which all of the smart city initiatives can be launched, managed and maintained. At the moment this surely differentiates the leaders from the laggards.

Last but not least, councils that are lagging behind will see others beginning to occupy this space. The telcos, for example, will already have an enormous amount of data linked to cities, communities, suburbs, etc. If the councils are slow to lead their own open data strategy these telcos will fill up the space. They could even turn the tables and start charging cities for their city-based data. Electricity companies with smart grids and smart meters are also rapidly becoming owners of large amounts of city-based data and these organisations – especially the electricity retailers – will play an increasingly important role here as well.

Of course the ideal situation is for local councils to take the initiative and make sure that they become the major data hubs for the businesses and cities in their towns.

Obviously collaboration with all of the other players is a must, in order to maximise the economic and social benefits for their citizens. This is something I am working on, with some interesting industry meetings planed for April. I will keep you posted on this.

Paul Budde