Have you ever had Google Maps recommend a different driving route because of traffic? Or used CityMapper to figure out how to get around town?
Then you’ve participated in the birth of something that is going to change our cities as much as the introduction of electricity and that will be just as important, ubiquitous, and invisible.
Imagine if you had a moving map where you could track every car, bus, train, bike, and pedestrian in real time, watch pollution levels go up as the trucks went past and see people scatter when a rain cloud opened. And better yet, imagine that it was like SimCity and you could see how the surrounding streets would warp and adjust if you put a school in here or a shopping center on that corner.
Above all, imagine how well organized our cities would be–how uncrowded our trains, how clean our air, how fairly distributed our hospitals and schools.
If that sounds like it should already be the case, you have to understand that most governing is done in the dark, with only a murky understanding of the consequences and ramifications of any tinkering with the intricately whirring clockwork of the entire city.
Take a hypothetical example: You pedestrianize a central shopping street because it’s clogged with pollution. Where will the traffic go? Which side streets will be overloaded? Which new routes will people take? Which school a mile away will suddenly and apparently inexplicably have twice as much traffic rushing past its gates? And how many of those children get lung diseases that are only found via a peer group study 10 years later?
That is the reality of urban planning, and why being able to measure everything as it happened would be nothing short of a miracle. We could stop fumbling our way blindfolded, knocking into problem after problem, and just look where we’re going.
The good news for you and me is that we’re living through the moment when this becomes reality.
Barcelona already measures the dampness of the soil in its parks, and automatically dispatches watering teams to beds that dry out. Amsterdam tracks how many pedestrians are on its streets at night, and dims the lights if nobody’s around.
All this adds up to the most boringly named revolution in history–open data, big data, smart cities, the internet of things–but ultimately it’s about information, and the change that follows from finding out what’s going on.
Cities are where this is going to happen, because of the sheer volume and density of the data they generate, and the open data movement is largely run from city to city, not country to country, through organizations like the Open Government Partnership or the Open Data Institute (ODI).
And lest you think it’s just about the wonkish optimization of pretty good systems, the data revolution is also about corruption, violence, and joblessness–in fact, about anything where numerical information can be collected.
To take corruption, first of all, every contract for the new Mexico City airport–one of the largest infrastructure projects in the world–is being published online. At its ultimate, that could mean the name of every contractor, every fee, and what they’ve been paid for, so you can see if any contracts have gone to people they shouldn’t have, if any are suspiciously high or (if you really wanted to get into it) how much the city is paying for every brick and bag of sand. Update that in real time and you could watch where each of the city’s pesos ends up.
One of the most impressive examples of this is from Sweden, which has made a website of what they spent their entire foreign aid budget on and–this is the brilliant bit–included reports on what effect their spending has had. So you can make sure that your tax dollars aren’t just legally spent, but also well spent.
In the U.S., Baltimore has combined crime statistics with MasterCard’s transaction records to show that when there’s lots of crime in a neighborhood, the number of shops decreases. It sounds obvious, but it means that you can measure the cost of crime not just in taxes allocated to incarceration, but also in taxes not collected in the first place because the shops have closed.
That means it makes sense to put crisis centers in those neighborhoods and spend money to help the people who keep committing crime, especially the vulnerable, the addicted, and the mentally ill. The hard truth is that that help becomes available when the data show that it’s a good investment.
And when it comes to jobs, data can, first of all, create them directly in companies like CityMapper and Google Maps. In Mexico City and London, Labora (a collaboration between the Mexican and U.K. governments) and the ODI are nurturing whole portfolios of startups to take advantage of the information flowing out from every corner: to find land that can be developed, to resolve commercial disputes, to forecast when machines will fail.
Data can also create jobs by making existing businesses get better at what they do. New York has started publishing a “business atlas” to help small firms compete with Starbucks and Walgreens. If you’re thinking of opening a store, it shows you how many people live in that neighborhood and who they are–old or young, rich or poor, owners or renters, as well as things like how much foot traffic there is and what taxes you’ll have to pay.
The civil servant overseeing it, Mike Flowers, says that for small businesses, the problem of getting that information has “probably been chronic since Emperor Augustus was trying to incentivize small business in Rome.”
Data is going to shift foundations that have sat undisturbed for that long. But the sad thing for its proselytizers is that most people will probably never really clock what’s happened. There will be no data revolution monument, no parade, not even a ministry of data. It really will be like electricity: Most people don’t know how it works, but you come home, flick a switch, and you’ve got lights, music, movies–everything.
Have something to say about this article? You can email us and let us know. If it’s interesting and thoughtful, we may publish your response.