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By Colin Harrison
IBM Distinguished Engineer

This is the third of three posts that explore the concept of urban information networks, that is, the flows of information in cities about what is going on. I am not thinking here of social networks, which deal with personal information, but rather of information concerning the how the city is working, both in the supply and the demand for services. Please click here for the first post and here for the second.

You are no doubt familiar with the Open Data movement, which is growing rapidly in popularity. Open Data 1.0, as I call it, begins with publishing government reports, often beginning with text documents but eventually extending to management reports on the operational performance of urban systems.  This is already hugely valuable in developing transparency between government and citizens, something that is greatly lacking today in most cities.

The US Obama administration was an early advocate for the Open Data approach to transparency in government and the US Open Data site offers almost 400,000 data sets and more than a thousand Apps.  Other national and local governments around the world are taking part and the European Commission has recently published a Digital Agenda statement advocating Open Data.  IBM’s site is a repository and analytical platform for comparing such datasets among cities.

But an equally valuable step will come when cities begin to expose their operational information in near real-time by allowing it to be federated into private services.  The city in fact is the largest producer of information about what is going on, but today that information remains trapped inside the many agencies. This is what I think of as Open Data 2.0.

The Infocomm Development Agency of the Government of Singapore is a leader in this area and publishes near real-time information on the availability of parking spaces among many other things.  By publishing it, that information is available to be tapped by the innovative capabilities of citizens and enterprises.  Dublin ran an Open Data Challenge in May 2011 and other cities such as Chicago and New York have been running App competitions to exploit such information.

While I strongly commend California’s CalTrans transportation agency for making data available for travelers, why should travellers depend on government to provide multi-modal transportation guidance?  Why not allow innovators to compete for the most effective algorithms to optimise such systems?  There are certainly some urban systems that are critical and whose operation should be reserved to the local government, such as water management, but in many other areas private enterprise is likely to be a more powerful source of innovation than public agencies.

A trend emerging in this space is a competition between these Apps developers, often hackers in small startups, and big established IT companies.  In a recent conversation with Volker Buscher, we described this as “Angry Birds versus Elephants”.  The two communities have a mutual interest in the data feeds, but probably have different intentions about how to generate value from them.  The Urban Systems Collaborative is planning a meeting in Chicago on April 19, 2012 on exactly this topic.  In a recent discussion with Chicago’s Metropolitan Planning Council, Peter Skosey observed that cities have strong traditions of combining bottom-up and top-down approaches to development.

I have written elsewhere of this approach – government as an agent for capturing and publishing real-time information about urban systems operations. One such example is the Stupid City, a term that refers back to a 1997 Bell Labs white paper entitled “Rise of the Stupid Network” by David Isenberg on the Internet principle of putting intelligence around the periphery of the network, rather than in the center as was traditional in the telephone network.

So these are my three thoughts on the importance of the flows of operational information in cities and the enormous impacts that can be achieved when these flows become digital.  This is a new way of looking at how cities work, a new way of helping the inhabitants to get the best use of the city’s services, and a new way of engaging citizens and enterprises in making the city a better place to live and work.


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