Before becoming mayor of New York City in 2002, Bloomberg made his fortune providing data analytics to financial institutions. When he took residence at Gracie Mansion, he brought his data-driven approach to managing the Big Apple. His creation, the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics (MODA), helped to develop predictive algorithms to identify areas that may be at greater risk of fires, for example. With the old method of inspection, the first quarter (25%) of inspections resulted in the identification of 21% of potentially at-risk buildings. Thanks to the uptake of data-analytics and a data-driven approach to city management, within the same quarter, NYC officials can now detect 70% of buildings that may be prone to fire.

Since then, Smart City projects have flourished all over the world. City mayors and councils have understood that embracing the fourth industrial revolution can help create a fairer, smarter and more transparent society. Of course, this could also boost investments in technology and therefore bring huge economic and social dividends. However, if it is true that data-driven approach can help cities drive change, it is also undisputable that desires and actual capacity to deliver not always are on the same page. Evidence from the U.S. can help us to depict the current situation.

Writing in What Works Cities Brief: the City Hall Data Gap, Bloomberg Philanthropies shows that, even if nearly three-quarters (72%) of cities have invested in a tool or platform to make data open, only 18% have an established process for regularly releasing data publicly. Again, while 70% of cities are committed to using data and evidence to make decisions about city programmes, only 28% modify existing programmes based on the results of data and evaluations.

The research identifies many barriers to making city data open, such as a lack of staff and financial resources; limited public trust in the data currently generated by city systems and considerable challenges in communicating the importance of this work to stakeholders. There is, though, a bigger obstacle to overcome. Data have little to offer if cities lack the sufficient skills to make sense of the actionable knowledge produced and thus adopting tailored decisions. In a 2014 White Paper, Public services: delivering the new generation of change, BT found that local authorities were in great need of addressing the IT skills gap. The research revealed that, though 41% of respondents considered IT literacy for all staff very important, just 7% were firmly convinced that the necessary digital awareness was already there.

How to solve this data-skills problem? As TMForum shows in Smart Cities: Enabling the Economy of Data, some cities have decided to ask for help from private sector partners and leave them to  interpret the data. Whilst engaging the private sector is important, this approach is likely to be insufficient. To extrapolate real value from data and drive change, cities must be on the frontline of data-analysis.

Cities sit on a massive amount of actionable and sharable knowledge. It is time to start fully benefitting from it.


Simone Grassi, Bristol Is Open


Photo credits: Andrew Gustar on Flickr