It’s been said urban performance currently depends not only on the city's endowment of hard infrastructure, but also, and increasingly so, on the availability and quality of knowledge, communication and social infrastructure. As an urban planner, this has been devastating to deal with; doesn’t good urban planning solve everything? As I have found out, it doesn’t.
So if placemaking can't save us, what can?
As you might have guessed from the tittle of this post, my guess is data. Cities -as well as any organisation- collect VAST amounts of data, that most often than not, sit idle on council computers doing nothing.
Luckily things are changing. Governments and organisations are realising the benefits of using this more efficiently can make their lives -and work- better, but also become more transparent and collaboratory.
In London commuters use Citymapper, an app, that uses real-time information about where their bus / tube is as well as traffic data, allows users to view -and choose- the easiest and quickest way to their destination. Nearly all big British cities have started to open up access to their data. According to the Economist, on October 23rd the second version of the London Datastore, a huge trove of information on everything from crime statistics to delays on the Tube, was launched; in April Leeds City council opened an online “Data Mill” which contains raw data on such things as footfall in the city centre, the number of allotment sites or visits to libraries. Manchester also releases chunks of data on how the city region operates.
The US has probably the most organised -and big- open data system. See below.
In Australia, things are also moving through a range of data portals such as data.gov.au (Federal data) data.vic.gov (State of Victoria data) or melbourne.data.vic.gov.au (Melbourne City Council data).
Mostly these websites act as tools for developers and academics to play around with. Since the first Datastore was launched in 2010 in London, around 200 apps, such as Citymapper, have sprung up. Other initiatives have followed:
“Whereabouts”, which also launched on October 23rd, is an interactive map by the Future Cities Catapult, a non-profit group, and the Greater London Authority (GLA). It uses 235 data sets, some 150 of them from the Datastore, from the age and occupation of London residents to the number of pubs or types of restaurants in an area. In doing so it suggests a different picture of London neighbourhoods based on eight different categories (see map, and its website:whereaboutslondon.org).
The result shows what many Londoners already instinctively know, but in a way which is visually striking: that, despite being divided into 33 boroughs, parts of the city can mirror one another. Young people cluster in rented digs in east or south London. Older people are spread much farther out. Many boroughs, in turn, have to cater for several different social types. Kensington and Chelsea, one of the wealthiest, is nearly exclusively uniform. But in Willesden, in north-west London, for example, older residents live cheek-by-jowl with young professionals and poorer people in social housing.
Such data may question the way a city is divided up, suggests Dan Hill, an executive director at the Future Cities Catapult. It could also have implications for the way council services are provided, and whether schools or hospitals could be built across borough boundaries.
It makes sense that cities release reams of data for developers to fiddle with. Kit Malthouse, London’s deputy mayor for business, says the city does not know what to do with 60-70% of the data it collects. And academic research can be used by the providers of public services. Oliver O’Brien, a researcher at University College London, has mapped how many people enter and exit Tube stations, and how this has changed over time. His research has been used by Transport for London, the authority governing the city’s roads and underground, which released the data in the first place, but did not have such a nifty tool to look at them. Such data should be useful for staffing plans.
But along with releasing more data, the cities should also be analysing them itself, and using them to make decisions about the city. So far this has proved tricky. Part of the problem is that, in contrast to New York or Chicago, where large city-wide data stores are available, City Hall does not control every service within their city. This is the case in London where there are different boroughs, but also in Melbourne where there are five councils in the inner city.
This may be starting to change in Victoria at least. At Code for Australia, a non-profit bringing innovation to government, we have a "Data Guru" in residence (read more about it here), who is helping governments, especially local councils progress their Open Data Journey, and potentially find a common dataset that all councils can release.
It helps that the bosses of cities are also becoming keener on using data. Last week Lord Mayor Robert Doyle from City of Melbourne released the Knowledge strategy, which includes ambitious plans for Melbourne to use data more efficiently. As cities start to demand more power from highly centralised governments, their leaders will need to learn how to use data more effectively.