Three ways cities are using data to guide decision-making

Jacaranda trees bloom near Palermo Park in Buenos Aires, 2009. The Argentine capital combined its data on public space with statistics on population density data to figure out spots for new public green space. (T Photography/Shutterstock)

DUBAI — More than 200 city leaders and other urbanists agreed this week on a new mandate that aims to further cement the importance of standardized urban data for driving the development of cities that are inclusive and sustainable, and that contribute to “smart” national development leading up to 2030.

The “Dubai Declaration” is the outcome document of the Global Cities Summit, hosted in partnership with the Executive Council of Dubai, that took place here this week. The declaration promotes the idea of “city data as the universal language”.

It underscores the commitment of cities participating in the World Council on City Data’s ISO 37120 certification — a global benchmarking system for measuring city performance — to promoting the standardized urban data as a tool for sharing city-to-city solutions around the world, and as the basis for informed investments in city infrastructure by national and senior government.

The summit represents a further step in the journey toward improved city data globally, and comes in the wake of the Cape Town Global Action Plan for Sustainable Development, which saw governments at the U. N. World Data Forum in January pledging to enhance data capacity at all levels.

“While city data is important to the local level, its true power lies in the national and international agendas that it can inform,” said Canadian Senator Arthur C. Eggleton, chair of the WCCD’s global city leaders advisory board. “It can drive investability; it informs our changing climates [and] the building of smart, sustainable and resilient cities. Moreover, it’s a powerful tool to help to define a global future that is prosperous and inclusive.”

After announcing the declaration from the stage, more than 200 city officials, academics, private-sector representatives and national officials adopted it.

[See: How ISO standards for city data are starting to make an impact]

More than 50 cities have already started to conform their data systems around ISO 37120, according to the WCCD, which hosted this week’s event. The Dubai summit was a first-ever opportunity for those cities to check in with one another on their experiences and to outline some of the ways in which the standard has been put to work.

Officials showed how they already are using standardized data to better understand the ins and outs of their cities’ functioning and to inform decision-making.

Mayors and other local leaders also spoke more broadly about cities and data. Officials from the Global North and South shared experiences that show how they are innovating with urban data in order to better understand and manage their cities. Here are three broad themes that came up repeatedly during the summit.

Informing urban planning

The argument for evidence-based decision-making, informed by sound data, is de rigeur in policy circles. And experts here showed how standardized urban data can be used to make better urban planning decisions.

For example, after crunching the numbers on figures around public space, city officials in Buenos Aires realized that the Argentine capital has just over six square metres of green public space per person. That’s well below the World Health Organization’s suggested amount of nine per person.

Having standardized indicators allowed the city to compare itself to others such as Los Angeles and London, both of which outstripped it in terms of public space.

[See: What Mexico City learned by devoting an office to designing public spaces]

To up its game, Buenos Aires decided to combine its data on public space with statistics on population density data. Then, officials used GIS mapping to pinpoint areas within the city that they could unlock as new green public space, explained Facundo Marzano, an advisor with Buenos Aires’s undersecretary of planning.

The city aims to add 100 new hectares of green public space this year.

“It’s very important to apply [data] for planning,” said Marzano. “Before making an urban project, we first look at the statistics and do diagnostics. Then we make decisions.”

Understanding economic change

City officials also discussed how standardized data indicators can help inform analyses of a city’s economic and land-use situation.

For example, to help local officials understand change in terms of the local economy, jobs and land use, Melbourne has a full-time census team that goes door-to-door to businesses in the city to create a bi-annual census of land use and employment. Australia’s second-largest city continually ranks as one of the world’s most “liveable cities”.

Those census reports ultimately capture a wide range of information, including the number of jobs in the city and changes in land use. That’s valuable data to a spectrum of stakeholders, including government, private corporations, property developers and universities, said Michelle Fitzgerald, Melbourne’s chief digital officer.

[See: How Baltimore is using the Sustainable Development Goals to make a more just city]

The data collected in these processes also supports the ISO 37120 indicators by providing data on public indoor and outdoor space, as well as the city’s jobs-to-housing ratio. The city has incorporated 30 of the standard’s 100 indicators into its reporting on a 10-year vision for the city, Fitzgerald said.

Guiding growth

Increasingly, city leaders are looking at ways that urban data can help drive their growth strategies and pinpoint areas for intervention.

In London, for instance, the tech sector represents an important component of the city’s economy, which is now dealing with the effects of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. Officials there want to understand how growth in technologies, like artificial intelligence, will affect the city’s job market in future.

“We have a data-driven economy: med-tech, fin-tech, increasingly ‘gov-tech’. Data is about bringing innovation into new parts of our city economy,” said Andrew Collinge, assistant director of intelligence with the Greater London Authority.

[See: How investable is your city? This index promises an answer]

City officials are tracking the growth of the tech sector, which currently supplies about 250,000 jobs — jobs that “simply weren’t there 10 years ago”, according to Collinge.

Identifying this growth trend led Mayor Sadiq Khan to launch a programme in December aimed at building digital skills among young people, with the goal of ultimately getting them into the tech market.

The city also is working with a company, Burning Glass Technologies, on a dataset for job postings. Uniquely, this initiative offers an online pool of job postings in the city, culled from the Internet in real time by automated computer “bots” that scan up to 6,500 websites daily, according to the city government.

A beta version of the database is already up and running, giving users information on available jobs, salaries and required skills.

The approach shows how London is merging new sources of data on the labour market with standard government data like that collected by the country’s Office of National Statistics.

“Every couple of weeks, we are setting out the picture of skills needed around the digital sector of the economy in a way that we just weren’t previously,” said Collinge, referring to the database, which picks up jobs in the tech sector among others. “We will always have a place for government data — it might be a bit slower in coming forward, it might be more detailed. But we have to compliment it with some of the new things we can do with data.”

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

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