big dataMore than 50% of the world’s population now lives in cities. And to accommodate their growing populations, cities are growing ever larger. But with increasing pressure on budgets, funds for city administration is not growing alongside the population. This means cities need to get smarter in order to meet the needs of their populations. And one of the ways that they can do that is to get better at using data.

Data sharing as a way of solving problems

Future Cities Catapult was established in 2013 as one of seven ‘Catapult Centres’ to help support innovation by businesses and describes itself as ‘a global centre of excellence on urban innovation’. It aims to bring together academia, business and cities to jointly innovate to help solve the problems of cities. The thinking is that usually, in solving one problem in a city, others are created. This makes sense: as the chief executive, Peter Madden explains in a video, you cool down a building, but you heat up the surrounding area. You make life easier for motorists, but cause pollution and health and safety problems for pedestrians.

In a discussion with UBM Future Cities, Peter Madden dares to suggest that cities are generally run very inefficiently. The administration does not really know how people use the space in the city, or how it really functions. In order to make best use of increasingly-tight resources, whether money, space or people’s time, we need to know more about how they are used. Madden believes that data is the key to solving the tension between cities’ needs and their budgets.

Data can help to map cities’ needs, and also the way in which resources are currently used. Data can also help to identify which interventions work, and which don’t. More importantly, it can also show how interventions interact. After all, you don’t want to waste time and money on two interventions that both work, but counteract each other’s effects.

Although there will be issues with privacy and data protection, people may be persuadable to give up some privacy in return for the benefits accruing from better use of their data. Sascha Haselmayer, co-founder and chief executive of, believes that it will be crucial for cities to share not just data but problems. They need to tell the market about key issues and allowing it to develop solutions, which may be something of a leap in faith to many city administrations. In a recent Citymart survey, 87% of city decision-makers said that they had no process to respond to unsolicited ideas, and 90% did not publish problems. Cities need to learn to act as consumers, as well as providers, of services, in order that the market can start to react.

There are numerous datasets available in cities, government and academia that are not being mined.  One of the roles of Future Cities Catapult is to find those datasets and help cities to mine them better. The team also has a role in putting different datasets together in new ways to provide new insights, and support cities in innovating. This may well be a challenge for cities, as the staff working in city administration now do not necessarily have the skills to ‘unlock’ the data.

Cities starting to take action on big data

But there are some cities starting to take action. Last month, Amsterdam, Barcelona and San Francisco signed up to collaborate on a new platform for data sharing between cities and citizens. Developed by CityZenith, the platform is called CityZenith 5D SMART City, and aims to help cities use the big data that they already collect. It includes capacity for app development by citizens, sharable via a market-place. These cities hope that by sharing best practice and drawing on the experience of other cities and their occupants, they will be able to rise to the challenges and demands that face them.

Looking ahead

The general manager at IBM Smarter Cities, Michael Dixon, pointed out at the United Cities, Local Government (UCLG) Congress back on October that citizens have come to expect the same level of service and interconnectedness from public sector that they get as consumers of private sector goods and services. This makes it even more important that cities use their data to best effect. There are cities starting to do this, but this is very much work in progress across the globe.

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