Smart Cities Hinge on Open Data

Back Commentary Jul 5, 2016 By Allison Joy

A technologically-savvy city is no longer fodder for fantasy film; it’s an expectation. We live in a time where technology can and should make our urban environments more efficient in terms of energy consumption, transportation, land use, citizen participation and government processes. The Internet of Things — an interconnected network of technological devices, users and data — has already fundamentally changed the way we live compared to even a decade ago. (Read more in this month’s cover story, “The Internet of You” by Robin Epley.)

And as our cities grow more connected — from the services they offer, to the residents within their boundaries and the needs of their communities — they are generating a massive amount of data, with the potential to generate so much more. The 2013 federal Open Data Policy (in which data is made available to the general public via open data portals) allows cities to find gaps in services, such as identifying food deserts or inefficiencies in our transportation systems. They allow civic technologists to access information regarding a community’s assets and needs, which in turn allows anyone to identify (and build) potential solutions. You can access the City of Sacramento’s open data portal at http://data.cityofsacramento.org. Roseville’s can be found at data.roseville.ca.us. The City of Elk Grove’s is at gisdata.elkgrovecity.org.

Access to this information gives rise to civic hackathons and app competitions during which developers can use the information available to solve real problems in their own cities. Last year, local firm Apptology won California’s Health Data Code-a-Thon with an app that helped connect WIC users to vendors that accept their benefits. (The California Health and Human Services open data portal can be found at chhs.data.ca.gov.) On June 4, in participation with the National Day of Civic Hacking, local developers created a mockup app called OreoSwamp that plotted food deserts, transportation lines and food access points. Built out and with the right community partners, this kind of technology has the potential to have a massive impact on food insecurity.

There is an obvious role for private enterprise to play in making our cities more efficient, provided cities and their residents retain ownership of the data these technologies generate. (The City of Sacramento builds ownership of its data into all contracts with outside vendors.) Sacramento recently announced a partnership with Google’s crowdsourced GPS app, Waze. The City will gain access to Waze’s real-time updates on traffic incidents and flow, and in exchange the City will provide Waze information on upcoming construction and road closures. Everybody wins.

A focused effort to streamline the processes of how data is gathered, what gets released and how and when it is released enables cities to better identify problems and solutions; it makes them more nimble and at less risk of growing stagnant.

And stagnation is the very opposite of our goal. The new Mayor’s Office for Innovation and Entrepreneurship has a fund of $10 million to put toward highlighting and strengthening Sacramento’s startup sector. Part of that money will go to a grant program called RAILS (Rapid Acceleration, Innovation and Leadership Sacramento) that will put $1.5 million annually into training programs, coworking spaces, innovation labs and other assets designed to launch new ideas into lucrative businesses. Additional funds will go into investing in startups themselves, both through local and national VCs, with the city effectively becoming a limited partner in venture capital funds.

The alterations being made now to how our cities function, in the Capital Region and throughout the nation, will have a fundamental impact on how they evolve and continue to meet the needs of an increasingly digital society. We want to know what’s happening in your locality. How is the IoT impacting your city, what changes are being made and most importantly, as a player in our increasingly-smart cities, what do you want to see in the years to come?

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