Open data goes to the city

Local governments such as the City of Boston are implementing open data platforms, with goals of improving business processes and empowering citizens.

Data of all kinds is coming to city hall, and government IT and data teams are adjusting. They are beginning work to find creative ways to handle high volumes of data newly available from sensors and open databases, according to academics and government leaders who gathered recently at Boston University.

Local government officials said they hope they can leverage the new data sources to improve services. They need especially to work smart, given tight budget constraints and aging infrastructure.

"Big data and the power of computation gives us the ability to look at our challenges a little bit differently," Bill Oates, CIO, the City of Boston, told attendees at a forum entitled "Smarter Cities: A Roadmap for the Future." 

Oates outlined a series of pilot projects using data, including some the city was undertaking along with IBM and Boston University. The notion of "Smarter Cities" is an off-shoot of the "Smarter Planet" initiative that IBM has used to describe the quest for ''better outcomes'' for organizations and governments.

Oates said Boston is working with IBM to improve coordination of arts, tourism and some other special events by creating an intelligent dashboard for city planners and managers. Boston is also piloting a new asset management platform, based on IBM Maximo software, for monitoring its 60,000-plus street lights with the eventual goal to use predictive analytics to coordinate repairs and maintenance of the lights.

An IBM Maximo project with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was also highlighted at the forum.  The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority was said to have used Maximo predictive capabilities to decrease corrective maintenance and project work orders by 38%. The asset management software can take data from sensors and other sources.

Smarter cities need smarter data format

Oates said his department in recent years has learned a lot about collecting data with the help of citizens. The city's Citizens Connect effort enables residents to report potholes, damaged street signs and graffiti. The related database is online and viewable by the public.

We want to make the data as available as we can, and to put it out in [a form] that can be consumable.

Bill Oates, CIO, City of Boston

His group has an ongoing commitment to sharing data with other municipalities in order to help find solutions to common urban problems. He said Boston has tracked the federal "Data.gov" effort with interest. The goal of that initiative is to make government data sets useful and downloadable.

The Data.gov data catalog website runs on Seattle, Wash.-based Socrata Inc.'s Open Data Platform. Boston is using the Socrata software to provide access to crime reports, school locations and other city data. APIs to the open data platform use a Representational State Transfer (REST) format.

"We want to make the data as available as we can, and to put it out in [a form] that can be consumable," said Oates. There is more to do, he admits.

"We have a lot of work to do to normalize the data so people can consume it," he said, adding that sharing data across municipalities can be complicated by the different semantics used by different systems to, for example, rate the food safety in different restaurants. Oates said the city of Boston had built its own software to handle this task but had found it was "hard to maintain."

Planning data

Cities like Boston could become a focal point for greater data democracy.

"I think the city is the best level for this. The data is out there but it hadn't been captured before," said Adrian Bowles, principal, Storm Insights Inc., a Boston-based market intelligence firm focused on emerging information technology.

Advances in data transformation need to be followed by advances in analytics, he said, adding that issues you find in aggregating the data will become more apparent as different levels of government share data and data analyses. Bowles also said that the data was most effective when it was considered in larger context.

Keys to the smarter city

Read how City of Boston fills potholes with gamification

Listen to a podcast report on Smarter Cities event

Check out a video interview with City of Boston CIO Oates

Such data could "be useful for planning, shaping and communicating policy," he said. "It raises the level of communication from a dialog or conversation to ongoing engagement that makes communication visible."

While focusing much on the data points that are a big part of the Smarter City, different speakers at the BU event emphasized that the city is composed of people. Cultural issues affect both the gathering and the use of data.

What's going to determine the winners? "It's not lack of access to analytical tools," said Nancy Staisey, vice president, Smarter Cities, IBM.  "It's cultural issues." All cities have data, she reminded us.

Embracing "a culture of analytics" is an ongoing process, Staisey said. The road to the data-driven smarter city, then, is a journey.

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