How Open Data Is Transforming City Life

By Joel Gurin

Start a business. Manage your power use. Find cheap rents, or avoid crime-ridden neighborhoods. Cities and their citizens worldwide are discovering the power of “open data”–public data and information available from government and other sources that can help solve civic problems and create new business opportunities. By opening up data about transportation, education, health care, and more, municipal governments are helping app developers, civil society organizations, and others to find innovative ways to tackle urban problems. For any city that wants to promote entrepreneurship and economic development, open data can be a valuable new resource.

The urban open data movement has been growing for several years, with American cities including New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Washington in the forefront. Now an increasing number of government officials, entrepreneurs, and civic hackers are recognizing the potential of open data. The results have included applications that can be used across many cities as well as those tailored to an individual city’s needs.

At first, the open data movement was driven by a commitment to transparency and accountability. City, state, and local governments have all released data about their finances and operations in the interest of good government and citizen participation. Now some tech companies are providing platforms to make this kind of city data more accessible, useful, and comparable. Companies like OpenGov and Govini make it possible for city managers and residents to examine finances, assess police department overtime, and monitor other factors that let them compare their city’s performance to neighboring municipalities.

Other new businesses are tapping city data to provide residents with useful, practical information. One of the best examples is NextBus, which uses metropolitan transportation data to tell commuters when to expect a bus along their route. Commuter apps like this have become common in cities in the U.S. and around the world. Another website, SpotCrime, collects, analyzes, and maps crime statistics to tell city dwellers which areas are safest or most dangerous and to offer crime alerts. And the Chicago-based Purple Binder helps people in need find city healthcare services. Many companies in the Open Data 500, the study of open data companies that I direct at the GovLab at NYU, use data from cities as well as other sources.

Open city data can help app developers, urban planners, and others understand a city’s problems and manage city services in ways that improve the quality of life and business prospects for its residents. In addition to creating economic value as businesses in their own right, companies like NextBus and SpotCrime help strengthen cities and improve their economic prospects overall. NextBus has a mission to make public transportation more efficient and appealing so that more people will use it. SpotCrime was launched to help users to decide where to live, where to operate a business, or simply where to walk at night.

Some of the most ambitious uses of city data–with some of the greatest potential–focus on improving education. In Washington, the nonprofit Learn DC has made data about public schools available through a portal that state agencies, community organizations, and civic hackers can all use. They’re using it for collaborative research and action that, they say, has “empowered every DC parent to participate in shaping the future of the public education system.”

Several cities have spurred innovation by releasing new public data and then launching competitions to encourage developers to apply it. One of the biggest competitions isNew York City Big Apps, for which I have served as an evaluator. The budding companies in this year’s contest covered a wide range of city problems and solutions. Here are some of the finalists:

NYC Hired predicts “which fields are the most promising in New York City based on salaries and growth potential.”
Ohmconnect helps manage the city’s power needs by paying people to reduce their electricity use so that the most inefficient power plants don’t have to supply more power.
RentHackr incorporates crowdsourced data to give current and prospective city residents reliable data on buildings, rents, and upcoming vacancies.
Responcer uses a simple visual system to allow anyone in the city to call from a smartphone for specific emergency help, including police, fire, and ambulance services.
Mind My Business tells brick and mortar businesses in the city about road closures or other local events that could affect them.

That last is just one example of how open data can help small businesses do well. Another, On Deck, is now making it easier for small and medium enterprises nationwide to find the business loans they need. On Deck uses open data from a variety of government and other sources to determine how safe an investment a business will be. Lenders generally can’t take the time to do this kind of due diligence on small companies, so On Deck does it for them, enabling them to lend with confidence.

The open data movement has already had an impact on government, scientific research, and economic sectors including finance, healthcare, energy, and transportation. As more municipal governments and civic-minded developers learn how to use it, open data has the potential to start to transform our cities as well.

Joel Gurin is senior advisor at the GovLab and project director of the Open Data 500. He will speak on a session about open data at the Sept. 16 Techonomy Detroit conference.

(Read about how technology is changing the way people find jobs in the UK and about aunique civic innovation program in Mexico City.