Urban Transformation

How big and open data can transform Latin America

Aerial view of Octavio Frias de Oliveira bridge, a cable-stayed bridge, in Sao Paulo, Brazil August 5, 2017. REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker - RC1888B69310

Informing change ... smart cities are using data and information to function more efficiently. Image: REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker

Timothy Hwang
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Nearly two decades into the digital revolution, Latin America finds itself at a crossroads. More and more traditional jobs are disappearing and the global economy is increasingly run on knowledge and skills that require significant investment in education and digital infrastructure. At the same time, the Fourth Industrial Revolution offers the prospect of harnessing data and digital technologies to speed up modernization and the opportunity to strengthen Latin American economies and governments by using data.

Access to information is a quintessential driver of progress, innovation and participation in the global economy. There are dozens of organizations, institutions, advocacy groups and leaders that are trying to navigate a way forward through economic, political and social shifts. Open and big data are a key component in ensuring that these shifts are managed and appropriately taken advantage of. Data provides the evidence needed to improve workflows, identify trends, innovate and make the right decisions.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution has made it so that information has become increasingly available and developing nations, under the right circumstances, will be able to manage and capitalize on imminent transformations. Guadalajara, Mexico, is in the process of transforming itself in to a smart city where data is used to better and more efficiently deploy city services. A series of sensors in everything from the streetlights to water pipes collects data to alert city officials to issues before they become problems. City-wide wifi connects all Guadalajarans to the internet, pushing citizens towards the knowledge economy of the future.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is one of the largest Smart Cities in the world. Every day, city operations are monitored from the Rio Operations Center which includes 1,000 video surveillance cameras, in addition to a team of 500 professionals who take turns in three shifts to take care of the city. Rio’s city managers have worked to improve communications with citizens, extending internet service and making interaction with the government easier through initiatives like Rio Àgora, a social network directed at citizens who live in Rio, and enables them to discuss and propose public policies with the city.

In Uruguay, the Ministry of Health has used big data to help patients compare healthcare providers through an easy-to-use web portal. This is part of Movilidad Regulada, a period in February when each citizen has the opportunity to change their healthcare provider. The web portal was launched to discourage monopolistic practices by healthcare providers who were known to bribe potential clients, and for clients to have a clearer understanding about their healthcare options. The web portal includes data on how many doctors are at a particular hospital, what waiting times look like, how responsive they are to feedback and average costs, among other indicators.

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By allowing the public to see open and transparent data, the information helps foster good governance, responsible leadership and agile government. Data and access to data is a crucial component to holding political leaders accountable, providing benchmarks to compare outcomes, creating stronger, evidence-based policies and ensuring the transparency of government. Across Latin America, there is a growing movement to open up government data and put it in the hands of organizations, businesses and individuals who can most effectively use it. The political will is growing within the region. For example, 16 countries in Latin America have developed plans to open government data to the public.

Buenos Aires in Argentina, La Libertad in Peru and Sao Paolo in Brazil have also committed to increased government transparency and welcome new forms of social participation. Groups such as the Inter-American Development Bank, ABRELATAM and Latin America Open Data Initiative are working across the region to scale open data initiatives that reduce corruption, improve health-service delivery, increase resilience of cities and reduce violence against women. They are working to help governments implement open data policies in a sustainable and inclusive way. Their goals are to drive productivity and alleviate challenges as economies in the region struggle to modernize and grow. In Latin America, and across the globe, access to data and information provides a conduit to nations (that have been previously left behind) to advance at faster rates.

According to the World Bank, 43% of the population in Latin America is under the age of 25 and 80% of the entire population of Latin America lives in cities. This presents an incredible opportunity for the role of data and information in the future of these nations. The youth of Latin America are poised to capitalize on the Fourth Industrial Revolution by harnessing data to their benefit and transform urban living as we know it. In Brazil, young people are driving conversations about transforming the economy and the ecosystem to reflect the digital era, demonstrating an openness to a more data-driven and information-oriented future.

Among the many concepts that should be included in the new narrative for Latin America, access to data and information should be one of the key drivers for change in the region. While the progress in Latin America has already begun, access to data and information is a key part of how the region will continue to grow its influence in the world, realize its full potential and participate in the modern and interconnected economy.

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