Big Data and Cities – “Nobody’s good at this”

This article by John Lorinc in the Globe and Mail sets out in a balanced way both the opportunities and the potential pitfalls of applying Big Data to a host of urban issues. Lorinc sees New York, Chicago and Boston as leading the pack, driven forward by activist Mayors. He also looks at how Toronto and other Canadian cities are beginning to get into the game, while arguing that there is some catching up to do. Lorinc quotes Professor Stephen Goldsmith from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government – with whom I shared a panel at the Smart Cities Expo in Barcelona last year – as saying that the application and intelligent analysis of data torepresents a sea change in thinking that could rival the shift to professional municipal management that marked the dawn of the Progressive Era over a century ago:  “Whenever we’re talking about data, we’re talking about modernizing how government works”.

Smart Cities needs smart clients – that is, we have to define the problem we are trying to solve, make best use of the data and tools we already use, and develop solutions from the bottom up before rushing to would-be top down comprehensive solutions.

Lorinc refers to the observations of Mike Flowers, formerly head of Data Analytics for Mayor Bloomberg in New York City and now with the Centre for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP) in New York.

Mr. Flowers points out that city officials shouldn’t be tempted to blindly make huge investments in “smart city” information technology in order to foster such insights. Indeed, his group relied on off-the-shelf spreadsheets to compile the data that led to New York’s dramatic analytics breakthroughs…While most municipalities in recent years have released large tranches of raw information – road-closure locations, transit schedules, and other intelligence – through so-called “open data” portals, the game-changing potential lies in interpreting those mountains of quotidian facts and finding new ways of putting them together. The analytics is equal parts art and science. As Mr. Flowers says, “Nobody’s good at this.”

This is very much the same as the approach we hope to develop in London through the Smart London Plan – ambitious in vision and scope, but realistic and sceptical (in the best sense of that word) in terms of next steps and above all conscious of the need to engage with and respond to citizens.

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