Superhero Squad: turning data kryptonite into data gold to reinvent our cities

Our cities can be dire places where livability, sustainability and workability are constantly under threat. Not so long ago, we sent out a call to innovators, digital leaders, CIOs and CTOs around the world to put on their superhero capes and start reinventing cities. With a powerful superhero squad in place ready to save the world from climate change, the first task is underway – tackling the area that would have the greatest impact: transportation. However, there is one thing that links transportation with all other intervention areas and can either inhibit or enable change: data.

Data in the cities

Cities have one very valuable renewable resource that has yet to be fully explored. Currently, structured and unstructured data abounds in our cities from government services like education, health, public safety and others, from taxes, businesses and sensors and from the public as well. Although its potential value is clear, cities have historically done little to fully explore this resource and put it to good use. There are many challenges that derive from the sheer volume of data available from disparate sources. There are also many fears regarding privacy, higher government and corporate control and reduced freedoms. The key to extract the most value from this resource is to find a balance between the investment, concessions and risks and the resulting benefits. Most superheroes would be willing to share their secret identity if that would provide them with a relevant benefit that would otherwise not be possible, right?

How can data contribute to cities reinvention?

From wider collaboration between and with stakeholders, to deeper public engagement and government transparency, efficiency and overall accountability, data can be a driver of continuous improvement in cities. However, contrarily to what most people might think with all the technology currently available, data in the cities is not always reliable, accessible or ready to use. Turning this kryptonite data into gold requires a long term strategic plan to make the processes of capturing, cleaning, integrating, analysing and using the relevant data feasible, efficient and, in the end, effective.

As shared by Jonathan Reichental’s (CIO of Palo Alto city) in his talk during CIOCITY17, the city of Palo Alto is already moving forward and using data to change how the city functions. One example is the smart city lighting that not only fulfils its obvious and immediate purpose of providing light to the streets, but also looks for available parking spaces and this data is integrated with apps that will communicate that information to people driving around in search of parking. Another example is the way Palo Alto started managing its maintenance work: through an app, the community can very easily report a problem (e.g. broken light), be notified through the different stages until full resolution and finally, evaluate the work done. All this information is now easily and publicly available in real time. Not only does this openness and accountability promote goodwill from the community towards the city, but the data generated also allows for quick optimization of services and future performance improvements.

In the case of Palo Alto, one of the foundations of their strategic plan is open data by default. Like in most cities, Palo Alto is ridden with decreasing budgets and increasing workload which strongly limits the innovation work they can actually do themselves. That is why the decision to focus on open data has been critical in turning what could be data kryptonite into data gold. The city is, thus, able to leverage the amazing companies in the area, which empowers a new economic system with new jobs and massive economic opportunities.

The journey ahead

Fortunately, Palo Alto is not the only city in the world where this reinvention is taking place nor is a focus on open data by default the only way drive this change. Many other cities have already started this journey, some with similar approaches, others with a focus on broader technology strategies. So, whether in public or private sectors, world innovators, digital leaders, CIOs and CTOs have an opportunity to put their super powers to even greater use and actively become involved with and benefit from this smart and connected city revolution.

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