Data & Cities

Last Friday November 25 Barcelona City Hall & Esade held in Barcelona an event around the use and the governance of Data in Cities. Central to this event was the discussion of what cities have to do with data and how to approach the tsunami around Big Data, Data Analytics and Data Science that is shaking and transforming companies and organizations around the world. Only a few cities: New York, Seoul, Amsterdam, Helsinki, now Barcelona … are exploring this uncharted territory with a diversity of approaches.

Geoff Mulgan, Director of Nesta, an U.K. applied research organization that centres its activities on the public sector presented what was possible the most futuristic vision of how data is going to impact cities. His basic idea was that being data the new wealth, governments should build commons that ensure that this wealth is not harnessed only by a few organizations and make sure that everybody could have access to it, allowing innovation and competition to flourish.

Besides this central need, Geoff presented three main lines of action around data in cities.

Firstly, the use of data to better coordinate, manage and predict service delivery in cities. Secondly, the use of data for driving innovation to the city. Finally, Data for policy. Data for better inform and implement policy.

Francesca Bria, Chief Technology Officer of Barcelona focused her presentation around Policy. Her speech revolved around a new but pretty well admitted premise: data is an infrastructure. Data is an infrastructure whose governance cannot be left only to the private sector. We need a new deal on data that protects users’ rights and we need to work towards technological sovereignty. These two were central points of her talk.

The projects of the Barcelona City Hall in this area were possibly the most expected part of the presentation.

A significant emphasis was put on two lines. The need of Technological and Data sovereignty and a New Deal on Data where citizens are at the centre and in control of both their data and its use. The main lines of this new Deal were clearly specify:

  •  Data are used to support the delivery of better public services.
  • Citizens are in control. They also feel confident that personal data are being shared responsibly to create better and more responsive services and policies which meet their needs.
  • Citizens readily know how to and can access personal information held about them, allowing them to confirm accuracy.
  • All data are leveraged to deliver best possible service delivery.
  • When we use personal data in research the safeguards to protect privacy operate effectively and efficiently.
  • Non-personal data held by the public sector is seen as a common good (or
resource) which is readily available and accessible for re-use, in a format which supports this.
  • Our capability is enhanced to address data challenges and opportunities so that data can inform public service design and support economic development.
  • Collaboration between business, research and the public sector will ensure that Barcelona achieves this, and can grow a genuinely collaborative economy.
  • The public, private and third sectors and civil society are continuously engaged in debate to ensure the continued effective use of data.

My intervention focused on a single point: Data & Policy. The main idea of my speech is to establish a link between Policy and complexity.

Policies have been devised since long as the implementation of political ideologies and there is nothing wrong with that in principle. However, once implemented many times we forget to check if they really work and what are the societal results and implications of these policies. As complexity increases and successful implementations become more complicated and we find an increasing number of policies that either don’t work or produce results that harm the society.

Data can help. The use of data to inform policies produced experimentally can help a lot in situations of medium or high complexity with multiple constituencies, conflicting interests and evolving technologies.

I presented some examples of this. First an initiative of San Francisco aimed at reducing the number of bike and pedestrian accidents to zero. San Francisco used big data technologies to detect that 70% of them happens in 12% of the intersections and devised a plan to change this 12% reducing the number of accidents, potentially to zero.

My second example came from the U.K. . All countries are making efforts to reduce health care costs and one of the common policies is to promote the use of generic instead of proprietary drugs. Prescribing Analytics is a project that uses big data to look into the actual prescriptions and alert on the compliance with generics.

My third and last example was about the use of experimentation. Many European countries have in practice some kind of basic income implemented in a midst of subsidies coming from different administrations. The idea of putting all of them together is attractive but again implementation counts a lot and finding the best implementation is not easy, so some countries are running tests to explore potential implementations and their benefits.

Finally, I summarized the ideas in the talk with a simple diagram describing the interaction between societal complexity and policy and the use of data and experiments to better handle it.

Many more things happened this day. A talk of Gavin Starks, former director of the Open Data Institute, a really nice panel with many interesting interventions and proposals and a workshop with some of the most important actors on A.I., Big Data and Data Science in Barcelona. However, I wanted to highlight these three presentations that in a way present three different perspectives on how to bring much needed Data to city management.

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