Smart cities need open data

Interview: Ben Cave of the Open Data Institute argues that openness has to be the core principle in the evolution of urban services

Ben Cave is not a fan of intricate planning for smart cities; he believes that they need a chance to evolve, and that making public data available for re-use has to be one of the principles of the evolution.

Ben_CaveA common perception of the smart city is that using all those digital technologies to make everything run more smoothly demands detailed plans to ensure all the pieces fit together. But Cave, who is taking a lead on the issue for the Open Data Institute (ODI), says the plans can easily be undone by people behaving in ways that were not expected.

“One of the challenges with smart cities over the past decade has been the misconception that you can plan a smart city in advance,” he says.

“They are immensely large, complicated networks of interactions between different things. When our city planners believe they have advance knowledge of how things will work, that’s when we see a breakdown with services not working properly with one another. People have imagined they would be used one way but it turns out they are used in a completely different way.

Adaptability

“What an open city with open data enables is a faster response to the unpredictable nature of our cities. A really smart, open city is one that uses all these technologies in an adaptable way.

“It doesn’t try to prescribe a certain plan. It says that whatever happens we can build new solutions and ways of interacting that really complement the way that people want to experience urban living.”

The ODI is exploring the link between smart cities and open data in a one day course next month. It wants to share some of its own understandings, but also to learn from others and clarify its policy position. Cave, who is running the course, says the key idea is that “any smart city is an open city”.

The underlying idea is that cities make their public data available for businesses or community developers to re-use it in providing apps to support the public in using services, and more sophisticated solutions to align services at city-wide level.

Open data’s big advantage is that it can reflect the unpredictable nature of cities, opening the door for people to come up with a range of solutions to problems, the best of which will be widely used. Cave says the evolution of a smart city could be relatively fast.

Interoperability issue

But it also prompts thoughts about the dangers of a free-for-all, and whether people will create a lot of parts that don’t fit together. Cave acknowledges this, but is optimistic that an interoperability between the new services can emerge.

“If you have the data, you enable everyone’s solutions, whether used by one person or a million, to work with each other,” he says. “That data provides a common denominator, a base layer for the interoperability of services.

“It’s not a bad thing for different people to design different services. A truly smart city is one that takes the best services on offer. So you will have some services not being used, but if you’re open and accepting of new ideas you can accept that the best items on offer will almost certainly be the ones taken up.”

He cites a couple of examples of apps that have been widely taken up while competitors have fallen by the wayside: Uber and Halo for taxis, and City Mapper in providing different options for public transport, cycling or walking.

It amounts to unleashing the ideas among individuals and the private and third sectors to make cities run more smoothly, but Cave says there is also a need for “network thinking” in ensuring that the various strands come together.

Resolving tension

Is there a tension between this and the free approach in using open data? He suggests it is a question of degree – that network thinking does not amount to highly predictive planning but pulling the best solutions together – and says a city needs a dialogue to strike the right balance. This can allow people and businesses to develop solutions while city authorities take forward the best ones.

“Being an open city doesn’t mean there will be no more government; it means the government’s role will be more responsive and agile and less of an advanced planner,” he says.

As a route to achieving this, he points to three steps a city authority needs to take.

One is to make sure it has a robust data infrastructure that can make the open data accessible to anyone. He says that nothing can happen without this and it is key enabler of the creativity.

Two is not to plan heavily in advance with major projects. He has an eye on the construction of Crossrail in London, saying it will influence the way people use public services around different points in the routes, but believing it is not possible for planners to predict the details. Instead, the smart solutions are going to emerge from people who can respond quickly to what they see in the communities.

Three is to be open in bringing anyone into the process.

“The core of an open city is one that invites the widest possible range of voices, be it business and community groups and individuals,” he says. “The successful open cities are going to be those that bring in the widest range of voices.”

UK leaders

It is new ground for cities around the world, and Cave says that as yet there are no shining examples of how to make it all work. But he says some UK cities are among the world leaders and points to examples such as Milton Keynes and Glasgow in creating a data infrastructure for developers to use.

The ODI is aiming to establish a role in educating city authorities on the options and providing training on the practicalities. It is also working with companies such as engineering and planning consultancy Arup to clarify ideas for specific areas, and with government bodies such as the Smart Cities Forum and Future Cities Catapult on opens data’s role in the broad strategy.

Cave says the alignment between the two is inevitable: “Open data is really central to where the smart city is heading.”

The ODI course on Open Data for Smart Cities takes place at its headquarters in London on 15 September. More details here.

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