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Insights & Trends 4 min read

Data allows cities to open up to us

Data allows cities to open up to us

The world’s cities are rapidly opening floodgates of data with goals of advancing infrastructure, providing transparency, and enabling developers to improve city services. But there are challenges to overcome.

Cities, as best they can, are providing data that gives insight into almost every aspect of their existence. Search for any city and add the term “open data,” and see for yourself the sheer bulk of information that the world’s centers of population are making freely available to the public.

For instance, if you want to see all 9.2 million street construction permits issued in New York, NYC Open Data has a data portal for you. If you’re curious about regional employment rates in London for the last 20 years, the London Datastore provides that information. If you’re looking to buy a home and are concerned about neighborhood noise, the Hamburg Transparency Portal can inform your decision.

Across the world, 94 countries and countless cities are making data available to the public. Some are advancing their efforts on their own, others are partnering with local companies. All of them are hoping that by providing thorough information, public and private entities will utilize that data to enable advanced services and improve quality of life for cities, their businesses, and their residents.

The problem with data formatting

This system encounters trouble when its data enters the arena of consistency. In an ideal world, all cities would publish the same datasets in the same formats. In fact, the European Union is promoting this very idea. Despite that promotion, differences occur for a range of reasons.

Some cities were publishing data long before anyone thought to promote consistency, while other cities adopt unique formats that are easier, cheaper, or simply work better in their framework. Some information is provided in online databases, while others are in machine-readable CSV data files.

Even within an individual city, problems arise. Both the Department of Education and the Department of Streets and Sanitation may have a complete list of home addresses. It is often the case that the two databases don’t have the same fields or the same rules for data entry.

Database discrepancies cause big problems when multiple systems try to communicate with each other. The result is the formation of information silos within the city government and roadblocks in the way of collaborative projects.

Creating unified data for everyone

The good news is that the city leaders know that formats are an issue. Cities like Hamburg, which will host ITS 2021, are already aggressively unifying their data formats across all public sectors, and in coordination with the EU recommendations. By adopting technical standards from the outset, the city is creating a fully-fledged Urban Data Platform, where city departments as well as public and private organizations have seamless access to all the workings of a city.

This model of taking many points of data from a massive array of different sources, unifying that data into a usable format, and making that data available for everyone is one of the guiding principles of the HERE Open Location Platform.

When data comes together in this way, opportunities quickly come to the surface. That app developer in New York can overlay all the city construction plans with maps and historical traffic data to develop better routing during building hours. A city planner in London can visualize employment rates across the city and overlay a map of new business permit applications. A home buyer in Hamburg can look at how the cost of homes is impacted by the noise levels of the streets outside.

We know that the future will be collaborative, and we’re excited to see how cities, and their data, open the door for new opportunities for years to come. 

What service would you build using open data from your city?

Bradley Walker

Bradley Walker

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