In the Netherlands, local and national experts are teaming up at urban data centres

The CBS Urban Data Center in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, was the country's first such initiative. Since it opened in September, two others have started operating -- with several more in the works. (Sjoerd van der Hucht)

Officials in the Dutch city of Groningen this week opened the country’s third urban data centre, underscoring the speed with which the Netherlands is expanding an initiative that began only this past fall.

And these three are only the beginning. Two more urban data centres are set to come online by April, and eight are set to be operating by the end of the year, including one in Amsterdam. Still more are slated to open in coming years.

What’s taking place at these new offices? The idea is to bring together staff from local government and the country’s Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) to work collaboratively using national, local and “big” data to help inform better urban decision-making and guide city investments.

“We work from the needs and demands of the cities. We are trying to learn what the policy needs are, and we try to see how we can support that,” says Statistics Netherlands’ Robert Hermans, programme director for the CBS Urban Data Centres. “Only through direct day-to-day interaction can we really understand what the local data needs are, and we can see whether or not we can provide — from our data and expertise — services to optimize those local data needs.”

In the case of Groningen, this work will extend into the 25 surrounding municipalities that make up the city’s daily urban system, he says.

Last month saw data capacity rise to the top of the global agenda, as government officials and experts from around the world gathered in Cape Town for the first U. N. summit on the issue. There, governments launched the Cape Town Global Action Plan for Sustainable Development, pledging to build statistical capacity at all levels. A key aim was to facilitate monitoring progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the global anti-poverty and sustainability framework that went into implementation last year.

[See: For first time, governments pledge to bolster data systems at all levels]

While there is broad recognition that the success or failure of the SDGs will be decided in cities, statistical capacity at the local level is widely seen as not up to the task of monitoring progress on the complex new goals.

Now, the Dutch collaborative approach to urban data production shows how a national statistics institute can ensure that national data is made applicable at the local level and that local data is getting the attention — and use — that it deserves. At the U. N. summit in Cape Town, the Netherlands stood out as a leader in this regard.

The Eindhoven experience

The city of Eindhoven, the birthplace of electronics company Philips, is home to the country’s first urban data centre, which opened there in September.

“In general, every national statistics institute has a lot of data. But the connection between the national level … and the city in most cases has not been made.”

Robert Hermans
Programme Director, CBS Urban Data Centres

Since coming online, that office has been involved in ongoing research to analyze unemployment in the city. Data centre staff members also are looking into vacancy rates for inner-city buildings to identify hotspots with high vacancies — research that will help inform decisions about ways to attract business to these areas in future.

To identify places to roll out public charging stations for electric vehicles, for instance, the team at the Eindhoven data centre used information from the national vehicle registry to map neighbourhoods in the city where people own electric vehicles.

[See: Uber shares mobility data with urban planners]

That process gave the city an indication of the spread of electric vehicles and demand for charging stations. That would have been impossible to do without access to national vehicle data, says Robert Elbrink, head of the city’s strategy department.

The urban data centre “is really giving us aid in asking the right questions and pointing out interesting patterns, and in that way supporting policymaking,” he said.

Through the urban data centre’s collaboration, the city is looking at ways to improve its data handling, leveraging the capacity and knowledge of the national statistics office, he says.

“They have huge experience in handling data, [being] secure with it, privacy issues they have faced for a long time,” says Elbrink. “They have great infrastructure for data, because it’s their core business. It’s important for us, but it’s not our core business.”

At the same time, the city has local, neighbourhood-level data, as well as air quality and traffic data. This supplements the available national data, he said.

[See: Citizen data can play a key role in monitoring the SDGs — by following a few rules]

This year, the national statistical office will charge Eindhoven about EUR 700,000 (USD 755,000) for its data services and expertise. That’s less than what it would cost for the city to use commercial researchers, according to Hermans, with Statistics Netherlands.

For its part, the city will use 2017 to investigate how using the data centre for research makes sense as a business model, says Elbrink.  

Standardizing urban data

The Netherlands continues to roll out the data centres, with plans to have about 20 in operation within the next three years, according to Hermans.

The urban data centres tie into broader ambitions to certify all municipalities in the Netherlands with the World Council on City Data’s ISO 37120 standard — an international standard for sustainable cities that allows urban areas to measure performance on services and quality of life. The council has already certified four cities in the Netherlands: Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Heerlen and Eindhoven.

[See: Initiative aims to bolster subnational data as key to measuring SDGs progress]

The thinking is that local data, if standardized according to ISO 37120, can be aggregated at the provincial and national level to offer clear insights into progress on the SDGs. Producing standardized urban data of this type allows for better city-to-city comparisons internationally. For Eindhoven, working with the ISO 37120 standard also will be a good way to monitor progress on climate change and “smart city” initiatives in the European Union, says Elbrink.

So, four months after the first data centre opened in the Netherlands, are any early lessons available? One key finding has been that bridging the gap between national and local statistical offices opens new avenues for the application of national data at the local level.

Those involved in the programme also have gained insight about replicability. While there are differences in capacity in other regions, Hermans says similar data collaborations between national and local levels could be possible in every country.

“In general, every national statistics institute has a lot of data. But the connection between the national level … and the city, in many cases, or I would say in most cases, has not been made,” he said. “If you bring together the expertise and the data available on the national level with the expertise and data on the local level, and you just bring people together in one room, it’s very easy to create an added value to the local data needs from the statistical institutes.”

[See: Data capacity looms over implementation of urban development goals]

Bringing together experts from the national and local level also comes with challenges, however, due to differing organizational backgrounds and cultures.

“You really should invest in the cooperation,” says Eindhoven’s Elbrink. “You really have to invest in team-building with the core members of the CBS and the municipality — understand each other’s world.”

To make sure that data work leads to policy implementation, it’s also important to involve the officials that have authority over the policy area that research addresses, Elbrink notes. In the case of Eindhoven’s electric-car-charging stations, for instance, the policy officer responsible for this portfolio was part of the project from the beginning, he says.

“You should have ownership in the policy area that you do research for,” says Elbrink. “Else, you have a nice booklet, a nice [factsheet], a nice report, but there’s no landing strip for it.”

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Brendon Bosworth is a correspondent for Citiscope based in Cape Town. Full bio

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