Urban Transformation

Open data is a game changer for cities worldwide — here's how to use it best

People walk past Bank of England in the City of London financial district in London, Britain, October 27, 2022. London has long been hailed one of the succesful examples of open data management.

London has long been hailed one of the succesful examples of open data management. Image: REUTERS/Maja Smiejkowska

Andrew Collinge
Strategic Advisor, Dubai Digital Authority
Yasunori Mochizuki
NEC Corporation Fellow, World Economic Forum
Shefali Rai
Project Specialist, C4IR India
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  • The COVID-19 pandemic showed that granular, community-level open data is critical to the resilience of our cities.
  • Through the G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance, the World Economic Forum and its partners have been promoting best practice open data policies in 36 Pioneer Cities — but more work is needed to address gaps at a city-level.
  • The G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance is developing a new ‘Global City Data Movement’ to focus on this issue, aligned with India’s G20 presidency during 2022-2023.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, cities witnessed the impact and potential of open data at scale.

As urban challenges and the potential of data technologies intensify, now is the time to acknowledge that responsible, effective use of open data can speed up and optimise our responses to societal and economic crises — from inequality to climate change to crime.

Globally, the impact of open data has been visibly demonstrated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Johns Hopkins University’s celebrated open data-led COVID-19 dashboard surpassed one billion page views a long time ago. In parallel, many cities created community risk profiles, resource management tools and real-time infection mapping applications — sometimes controversially — based on granular community and individual-level data.

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Beyond the pandemic, other looming and critical issues such as climate resilience and the ongoing energy crisis offer significant potential for open data impact.

Given the interwoven complexity in sectors such as energy, infrastructure, real estate, transportation, consumer behaviour and meteorology, a well-governed, collaborative ecosystem will thrive on both open data publishing and controlled exchange of sensitive data.

Open data and the G20 model policy

Government open data is now well over a decade old. London, New York, Barcelona, Amsterdam and Dubai are often held up as successful examples of its usage. These cities need to tackle urgent problems and know they need to advance service digitization with data. This offers an opportunity to promote well-governed data management and value creation for cities at large.

The Open Data Model Policy was in the first set of model policies, released November 2020 under the G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance (GSCA), enhances technological governance in cities. Created by city data leaders from across the world, this policy is intended for cities aiming to capitalize on open data publishing. Besides covering governance, technical standards and data infrastructure, stakeholder and ecosystem engagement, the policy features tools to help city leaders make the business and political case for open data.

Open data was critical in informing the public and formulating public health policies during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Open data was critical in informing the public and formulating public health policies during the COVID-19 pandemic. Image: Center for Systems Science and Engineering, Johns Hopkins University

Cities move from policy development to learning together

The Forum's experience in the workshop for this model policy with the 36 'Pioneer Cities' of the GSCA revealed that while most cities have an open data policy in place, many struggle to implement key elements of these policies across their ecosystems. Many also have difficulty capturing and documenting the value generated.

Therefore, the GSCA established a peer-to-peer learning network, where the Pioneer Cities could share experiences, best practices and common pain points. From this, there are certain lessons learned with which cities can be purposeful with open data. For instance, cities can replicate the private sector and industry around ecosystem plays that focus on specific challenges to be solved by data. This means pivoting to digital approaches that encourage multi-disciplinary collaboration and a focus on clear outcomes in the form of data products and services.

Simultaneously, practical issues exist that often percolate across a broader field than open data, such as a demand for data analysis and engineering skills and — reflecting the above — those in delivery and product development are high and mostly unmet. Other examples such as data privacy concerns from citizens — London has just established ‘data ethics as a service’ for its 33 municipal authorities — or pain points in technological governance stemming from automation of data management processes and in wider organizational governance reappeared regularly in discussions with data leaders seeking to implement the policy.

So, where next? The global discourse on the significance of data for cities needs to be augmented by deeper work that takes stock of development supported by open data and brings together city data practitioners, knowledge leaders and industry partners to solve today’s challenges. This will mean moving beyond open data.

Valuable initiatives do exist and can be learned from. The Open Data Policy Lab promotes purpose-led open data publishing to eliminate redundancy. The Open Data Institute’s Smart Data Innovation Guidebook provides examples of regulator-led, ecosystem-wide data-sharing to drive innovation in areas from open banking to energy. Focusing on energy specifically, Icebreaker One’s Open Energy initiative provides the governance, standards and technology to discover, access and share energy data.

These may also drive new insights into how city administrations can overcome the fundamental challenge many now face, wherever they are: how the value open data creates can be justified in view of the significant resources and effort that must be invested in it to bring it to fruition.

Further, initiatives such as Facebook’s Data for Good and organizations including the World Resources Institute are opening up swathes of data and tooling that talk to a future of local applications. In these, open data is increasingly combined with other novel data sources. Cities have much to learn from these advanced and sector-specific examples. Each example contains noteworthy lessons for cities that can answer the connected and practical questions of how data is stored, shared and used — by whom and for what purposes.

Building a global open data movement for cities

The G20 GSCA is committed to promoting data management and value creation in cities across the globe. As India takes over the presidency of the G20, the GSCA is proposing a new G20 Global City Data Movement, to be anchored on the enormous data-related knowledge gained from over 100 smart cities across India, operating under the Smart Cities Mission.

This will provide significant impetus for data-led urban transformation and technological governance. City data leaders in India and globally will be empowered to assess how data can support urban transformation goals such as decarbonization of urban sectors, data monetization as a source of revenue, value creation for cities and capacity building of city administrations to work with and manage Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies.

The aim of the global city data movement is to build confidence in the use of data by city authorities through workshops, peer-to-peer learning, evidence gathering and implementation support. The initiative will invite and connect cities at different stages of their data journey — from those with technologically mature, integrated systems to those still considering their data strategies. A global repository of evidence and learnings from cities will be made within a year of the movement.

As challenges as varied as climate change and inequality persist, efforts like this and coordinated responses will become all the more important.

If your organization could contribute to or benefit from this new movement, we want to hear from you.

You may meet the GSCA team at the G20 GSCA pavilion at the Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona from November 15 to 17 2022. You may also contact the GSCA via our website at www.globalsmartcitiesalliance.org.

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