Accelerating Economic Opportunity With Open Urban Data

By Gordon Feller

Gordon Feller is the Co-Founder of Meeting of the Minds, a global thought leadership network and knowledge-sharing platform focused on the future of sustainable cities, innovation and technology.

This blog post is a response to the Meeting of the Minds & Living Cities group blogging event which asks, “How could cities better connect all their residents to economic opportunity?”

Opening up economic opportunities to those who’ve been left out could be accelerated by the emergence of open urban data platforms. This is my own hope, and it’s one that I share with many others. Enabling access to public sector information presents us with a chance to expand transparency, and perhaps even to widen public participation and engagement across various levels in our cities. However, the direction this takes us is, largely, still to be discovered.

Connected urban information systems are already having some impacts: lowering costs, improving government performance, enhancing the social utility of service-provisioning. Some important steps are now being taken by leading-edge cities to link up information generated by urban services, infrastructure, public transport, and other utilities.

There are some real and difficult challenges facing cities as they move towards greater degrees of open data. Here are some of the questions which I’m asking, and to which I’m hoping to find (or create) answers:

  • How best to engage government officials, private sector organizations, international development agencies, academics and non-government organizations? Is it time for collaborative process — rooted in critical thinking — about how best to design and develop 21st century data-driven sustainable cities?
  • How can urban data be sourced beyond public institutions? What policy decisions are required, and what mechanisms exist to enable heterogeneous data flows?
  • What platforms are emerging which can enable better decision-making by both government executives and non-government leaders?
  • Where can lower-income cities get involved, and is this a luxury for established institutional frameworks only to grapple with?  Is this a luxury item?
  • The drive toward open data is emerging within both small and large urban communities. Are they seeing the concrete benefits which have been promised?
  • What are the key obstacles to success? What practical next steps would allow users of open data?

Early indicators tell us that connected urban information systems are yielding some real benefits.  Technically, it’s now possible to join up information that flows from a wide variety of on urban systems. And we can now allow each of these systems to talk to each other in order to improve efficiency and optimize performance.

Now that we have these amazing technical capabilities, what concrete steps are needed to achieve our objectives for a greater opening on economic opportunity? What steps would cities need to take to make those tools more widely available to citizens at all levels of the socio-economic spectrum? What programs are shown to be most cost-effective for lower-income urban residents? What makes sense at each of the different stages of economic development?

These questions need to be explored from different angles by leading thinkers on urban systems, by city executives, by international institutions like the World Bank, by tech companies. Furthermore, these questions could and should be explored from multiple perspectives — and that’s exactly the plan during Meeting of the Minds 2014 when it convenes in Detroit from Sept 30-October 2 of this year.

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