Annie Best

Usually when we hear about “big data”, the message revolves around cautionary tales of marketers surreptitiously collecting information from your Facebook account.  While this certainly happens (it’s true—if a service is free, you are the product!), it may not actually be the big data application that will end up having the biggest impact on your day-to-day life. Cities are beginning to use big data to drive decision-making around everything from transit service to garbage collection, and to use smart phone applications for meaningful citizen input on government performance and allocation of resources.

For instance, Boston University recently announced a new initiative that brings “big data” together with cloud-based computing that could be a game-changer for the way government in the United States does business. Typically, one entity—often a large company like IBM or Cisco—is contracted to take charge of data collection in a city or region, and develops proprietary applications for municipalities to use. SCOPE: A Smart-city Cloud-based Open Platform & Eco-system will provide those same services through an open-source public-private partnership to local and regional governments throughout the state of Massachusetts. This is a huge step forward for both efficiency and responsiveness in governance and one that funders, including the National Science Foundation, hope will serve as a model for other regions looking to implement smart city concepts, which include using data to drive efforts aimed at tackling greenhouse gas emissions reductions, improved police responsiveness, and coordinated public works scheduling goals.

While the SCOPE project is exciting in its potential to improve economic development as well as the nimbleness and resiliency of government, even more powerful big data moves are being made in Africa. The informal nature of the continent’s rapidly urbanizing cities means that the infrastructure for civic governance that we consider standard here in the United States is very difficult to implement. Data and, in particular, collection via cellular technology are opening up a fantastic new world of possibilities in these cities, such as the ability to track the population and deliver on the needs of those who live in informal settlements, and connecting citizens with government and NGOs through participatory data collection.

One of the most compelling examples of this sea change took place in Nairobi, Kenya in early 2014. Nairobi is one of the biggest and most complex cities in Africa, and like many cities around the world, boasts an extensive transit network. The catch is that this transit network, called the Matatu, consists of hundreds of privately operated bus lines that stretch deep into the outskirts of the city, making it difficult to map and for citizens to use it efficiently. The Digital Matatus project—a partnership between MIT, the University of Nairobi, Columbia University, and Groupshot, an innovation consulting firm—put cell phones loaded with an easy-to-use app into the hands of Nairobi’s transit riders. Riders tracked stops and routes as they rode, creating for the first time a comprehensive picture of bus service in the region. Using this data, a standardized transit system map was created for the first time. It was quickly adopted by the city government and used as a starting point for ongoing community dialogue about transportation, urban growth, and the future of Nairobi.

What so many of the good examples of civic innovation domestically and abroad have in common is the successful achievement of two important goals: the efficient use of resources and delivery of services, and the robust connections between citizen and government or service-provider. Big data and its associated technological innovations like civic smart phone apps enable both of these objectives by allowing citizens to play an active role in identifying and responding to local needs.  I’m excited to see what the next step for data and civic innovation will be for cities and regions, particularly as cities like Ottawa, Canada open up their data sets to everyday citizens. With access to live data sets, there are enormous possibilities for apps and programs that provide community services and connect citizens to each other in times of disaster or other hardship in ways that we are just beginning to imagine.