Smart Communities and the Opportunities of “Big Data”

“The key to smart cities is smart citizens.”

ARTICLE | Sep 24, 2013

“The key to smart cities is smart citizens.” This is the crux of keynoter Beth Simone Noveck’s advocacy for open data. Noveck is founder and director of The Governance Lab, which aims to improve people’s lives by changing how we govern, using advances in technology and science. Previously, she served in the White House as the first United States Deputy Chief Technology Officer and founder and director of the White House Open Government Initiative (2009-2011).

Governments at all levels are facing difficult challenges:

  • How do they deliver better services?
  • How do they safeguard the taxpayer dollar?
  • How do they protect the environment?
  • How do they accomplish their many obligations while doing more with less?

Noveck’s belief is that open innovation offers a way to meet some of these challenges. Tap into the citizens to solve problems, she advises. Doing so increases transparency, which reduces distrust. Public officials have a tremendous opportunity to use the expertise and creativity of citizens. Government has the technology but is underutilizing its potential. Our centralized bureaucracy is outdated in that it relies on voting as the primary method of citizen engagement. Today’s problems are so complex that they require different approaches.

Most people in government are resistant to citizen engagement, says Noveck; they think it’s too difficult, that citizens don’t have the background, or they just don’t understand government. And there are challenges. Citizen engagement can’t be a just forum for complaints. Even if you ask citizens for their recommendations, as the White House did on the We the People site, the people making recommendations don’t typically have the information to recommend solutions. They need data.

Data is the secret to solving problems. By having data available, creative citizens can identify and understand the problem and suggest solutions. 

Crowd Sourcing

Noveck explained the many ways to involve citizens electronically. One is crowd sourcing,  a collaboration that can take different forms:

  • Ideas and brainstorming to solve problems
  • Data contributions from the public, such as Public Lab, a do-it-yourself  environmental data collection initiative
  • Tasks that people can perform, such as the open translation project for TEDtalks
  • Crowd funding to solicit financial support for projects that are important to the community but lack funding, such as Wi-Fi access in a town center
  • Crowd mapping by local government staff to map the locations of disease-carrying mosquitos.

Incentives or prizes often help. They don’t have to be expensive, but they offer tangible appreciation and appeal to those who are competitive.

Crowd source wisely; not widely, says Noveck. Six people who do great work are better than millions who do nothing. People have different types of expertise. It’s not about targeting everyone; it’s about getting the expertise.

Big data/small data

Big data is one option. Small data is another. Big data is huge amounts of data captured in sensors that measure air quality, in census surveys, through search engines, and from other sources. Big data allows us to forecast weather patterns or stock market activity. Small data is about one person. Small data can tell us about our grocery and drug store purchases, charity donations, and other information that can provide us with patterns of personal behavior and allow us to identify things we might want to change.

Government data is typically big data. If government data is opened up, it unlocks the potential for problem solving. It gives citizens access to what is theirs. Data can drive solutions to problems. One of the challenges with big data is determining what is useful, and not all of it is.  The heat produced by hair dryers, for example, is big data, but how it can be used has not yet been determined.

Noveck highlighted several examples of useful data sharing focused on local government. Sustainable Dubuque is an initiative that allows, among other things, citizens to see their energy usage and adjust their behavior. Code for Philly “is an open group of citizens, working to harness the power of technology to modernize citizenship in Philadelphia.” Among the uses of open data on the site are real-time transit notifications and identification of the safest routes to schools.

“Do open data right”

Noveck concluded by noting that much of our use of open data now is an experiment. Sometimes it works; sometimes it does not. Make the community your partner in these experiments, she says. Embrace the experience and the innovation:

  • Focus on how you use it, not just getting it online
  • Connect data to problems
  • Identify relevant data from other sources
  • Remember that data are not just numbers
  • Let people surprise you; they will take the data and solve problems.

Create a culture of “open.” If you don’t, it will be forced upon you. When it happens, embrace it. Local government staffs have jobs that allow them to do work that matters. Most citizens want to do things that matter too. Data availability offers them the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution. Smart citizens + data = smart cities. And smart cities result in a stronger democracy.

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