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Smart Cities: Open Data is Changing the Way We Live

Julia Champtaloup By Julia Champtaloup Published on April 4, 2017

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Professor Carlo Ratti

During a recent talk hosted by the city of Sydney as part of the CityTalks Design series, Carlo Ratti, architect, engineer, and Director of the Senseable City Lab at MIT shared just a fraction of the many ways open data is changing the way we understand, design and live in cities. The so-called smart city we all keep hearing about is being built on the fundamental premise that with enough data and powerful analytic tools we can make our cities more liveable and sustainable. We just need to get smarter about how we use and share that data. 

Hila Oren from Tel Aviv also shared her story of a successful smart city initiative to Sydney audiences at the same event. Oren calls herself a "city maker" and previously served as CEO of Tel Aviv Global, where she spearheaded initiatives to build Tel Aviv as a hub for entrepreneurs and startups but also as a smart and accessible city for residents, students and visitors.

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As resources become progressively scarce and the world's population becomes increasingly urban, cities must develop infrastructures and technologies that will ensure a sustainable, attainable and equitable future for all citizens. Fast-paced changes have been driving globalization with easier information-sharing technology and data but also shifting ideas and employment. According to Benjamin R. Barber, author of If Mayors Ruled the World, smart cities will embrace these rapid changes more adeptly than national governments and they need to advocate for the use of open and shared data to ensure they meet these transformations head on. Vital to developing and implementing resource-saving, energy-efficient hard infrastructure for cities will be not only the intelligent use of shared data but also creative design combined with civic engagement.

The core functionality of a smart city will depend on a vast amount data on every aspect of our lives, to be collected every minute of every day. The question is: how will that data get used? Data analysis will soon play a far more important role in decision making on a day-to-day basis. Thanks to technology and disruptive innovations, we are already experiencing ways in which the analysis of massive amounts of data is being implemented. Technology researcher and writer Anthony Townsend addressed the history and transformative powers of data and technology in 2014 with his book Smart City: Big Data, Civic Hackers and the Quest for a New Utopia.

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Today, sensors are imbedded in urban infrastructures, collecting data on the patterns and processes of urban life. Data is constantly flowing from a variety of sources, including smart phones and apps. Geo-tagging apps like Foursquare and Instagram already provide data about what we're doing and where we are. The key is how data can be used more effectively to anticipate urban issues and change policies to better improve life for residents. Ratti believes the opportunities are many for cities and urban planners, especially when data is partnered with good design and innovation.

The challenge for governments and private companies to take responsibility for allowing the flow of open data looms large over society and is a frightening reality. Most importantly, serious concerns persist: how will issues of privacy be addressed and how much can governments, local or national, own or share on our behalf? Despite the concerns, there's much to be gained from harnessing data from smart phones and data points that surround us. 

Sydney - Designing a Smart City

The mayor of Sydney and the City of Sydney Council have already taken the initiative to use data to inform infrastructure plans. They countered critics of a new cycle strategy by tracking user numbers and bicycle trips, showing a clear increase in uptake. Using data from smart phones, they also proved that the bicycle networks were in strategic and well used locations. “We looked at people and the mobility of bikes and use of cycle networks. The data collected through smartphone apps reveals how people move through the city using GPS data. We mapped cycle use and now have detailed information on where we need to put more cycleways." said Phillip Thalis, a city councillor. Sydney has also used open data to monitor carbon emissions using data to work towards the goal of reducing carbon emissions city wide. Most recently, the city added jobs in technology and digital services to oversee the its information technology infrastructure - recognizing that innovation, data analysis and investing in its digital team are of the highest priority.

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Sydney is an example of a city that is actively looking forward and planning how to become a smart city. It is encouraging innovation and harnessing technology and open data to feed into various projects but seeks more collaboration with private businesses. In March 2017 Clover Moore announced updated strategic goals for Sydney’s future, including more connectivity, after her engagement with world city leaders and planners at the C40 Mayor’s Summit in Mexico. 

Chris Pettit, Director of the City Analytics Program at the University of New South Wales (Sydney), said that while local and state governments were "on the cusp" of working with big companies to access personal data, he believes more collaboration is needed to share and analyze information. “Private companies know more about your movements and daily patterns than your local government does. Data should not just be used for targeted advertising and marketing.” Pettit also sees data as the new oil — a constant and rich fountain of information being collected on all aspects of our lives. "Data is being collected from us as we move around, so the question is: how can we analyze that data to unlock some parts of the city which aren't being fully utilized," he noted.

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Ratti and his team at MIT Senseable City Lab have worked with various corporate partners such as uber to access some of their data. They then combine data with design and science to find creative solutions to many of the problems that challenge cities and urban planners. Using creative data, projects have studied areas such as traffic, garbage removal, home deliveries, greening cities, increasing air quality and more. Recent projects give an indication of what is to come: how cities can use data to create a denser ride-sharing culture, tracking garbage from landfill to its final resting place and thinking about new transport options such as driverless boats.

The Senseable City Lab’s garbage tracking project was successful in proving three things, according to Ratti, "The project showed us that garbage was moving thousands of miles in the wrong direction. It also promoted behavioural change. We shared the information with citizens and one person stopped drinking water in plastic bottles when he saw that they were going straight to landfill and not being recycled. This offered proof that we need to design a better system of refuse removal and recycling."

At present, the control of information is being taken away from citizens, and companies providing services are rushing to find ways of generating revenue from the data they hold. The issue has huge implications for society and is going to need serious debate, Ratti believes. "We need to think about how we want tomorrow's society to work but it is a bigger discussion than just smart cities," he said. "We are basically building a digital copy of our physical world and that is having profound consequences." Futurists like Amy Webb, in her book The Signals Are Talking, have also been turning their attention to these larger issues.

Ratti’s current project is a global car sharing project working with data from uberPool. Data showed many frequent trip patterns that could potentially be shared if riders are connected. In New York city alone, Ratti and his team demonstrated that with more shared data and public apps to encourage ride sharing, the city could run with 20% less cars. They applied an abstract network of trips to four different cities and found that shareability follows a ‘universal’ law, with different cities showing the same curve when the feasibility of ride-sharing is plotted against demand. 

“Although these four cities superficially look different, their shareability curves look the same,” commented Steven Strogatz, a mathematician at Cornell University, who is a co-author of the latest MIT study. “It’s amazing to me that it works as well as it does.”

Fewer vehicles on the road coupled with driverless cars — a near reality with thousands being tested — will mean reduced traffic congestion, parking lanes freed up for cycling routes and parking lots changing over to green space. According to Ratti, this will be transformative for cities — not only by reducing carbon emissions  but also changing the streetscape and employment (reducing the number of taxi and limousine drivers).

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MIT Senseable City Lab


Tel Aviv - A Smart City Success Story

After founding Tel Aviv Global, Hila Oren and her team set out to create a unique proposition for the city: How to differentiate value proposition? How can the city build on its economic strength and leverage its financial, digital and creative forces? The first unique selling point they offered was city-wide free wifi. This quickly gave residents, startups and tech companies access to high speed internet and online services. In fact, they found that the free wifi was used most in low income areas. With a clear mission to elevate Tel Aviv’s global standing as an innovative and smart city, the Startup City initiative set out a strategic plan for investors, entrepreneurs, tourists and students connecting a city platform with a private initiative. As a part of the Startup City plan, the city government created shared work hubs for entrepreneurs and companies in public offices and library spaces.

Now a leading technology hub, Tel Aviv is known for its openness to innovation and high-tech ecosystem.  Tel Aviv has also developed highly advanced solutions for urban administration using data and has worked to engage residents in the process. As a result of one successful digital project,  Tel Aviv won the Best Smart City in the World at the Smart City Expo In 2014. Since then, Tel Aviv has continued to develop its smart city vision, focussing on attracting entrepreneurs but also on improving the quality of life for its residents.

Expanding Open Data

Cities and citizens worldwide are discovering the power of “open data” and are calling for more access, not just for new business opportunities. By opening up datasets in transportation, education, health care and more, municipal governments and non-profit organizations are hoping to help app developers and others use innovative ways to tackle urban problems. A few cities have spurred innovation by releasing new public data and launching competitions to encourage developers such as the The NYC BigApps competition and the Apps for Democracy in Washington, D.C.

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Leaders in the urban open data movement include New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Austin and Washington, D.C. in the US and London and Birmingham in the UK. In Birmingham, lamp posts are being outfitted with sensors that can transmit information about cloud cover to offer hyper-local weather forecasting. In New York City, RentHackr relies on crowdsourced data to give current and prospective city residents reliable data on buildings, rents, and upcoming vacancies. The City of Chicago’s Data Portal is an initiative to promote access to government information, making over a thousand raw data sets publicly available online. This allows researchers, technologists and average citizens to conduct any analysis they want. Online since 2010, the portal has grown to include regularly updated data from every city agency. In Austin, Texas, a grassroots movement formed Open Austin, which hosts hackathons and other opportunities where citizens can get involved. Open Austin is unique in that it focuses on the needs of the community (not businesses) and works to ensure that all local government agencies embrace open data and support civic software developers.

The smart city concept continues to gain ground but the complexity of the agenda means there are still many hurdles to overcome. Cities will need to adopt intelligent business models around open data and foster collaboration with the private sector. While the smart agenda means integrating smarter technologies into development and infrastructure, it must also work in favour of public service and the needs of the community.

As shown by the MIT Senseable City Lab, partnerships between researchers, designers, the private sector and local governments are key to designing new products and services and ensuring they are financially viable. Cities themselves have begun sharing and collaborating through initiatives like the Smart Cities Forum, the International Mayor’s Conference and the C40 Mayors Summit and C40 Climate Change Leadership Summit.

The next generation of open data applications and intelligent cities is fast approaching. Advocates want to be sure best practices are shared and that open data is more widely available. Benefits stemming from open access to information and content and will contribute to the development of innovative services and social welfare but vital work is still be done to ensure benefits are shared by all.

Julia is a Sydney based writer covering sustainable living, innovation, books and art.

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