Sharing big data: the next frontier in civic innovation

SharedSpaceIn an era of increasing urban concentration, the multiple risks that our society faces at the environmental, social or economic spheres can be better addressed by adopting innovative and well-informed urban policies. Those policies can not ignore the potential offered by the set of processes and technologies grouped under the generic ‘big data’ buzz-word.

If we take an historical angle, after the ‘big bang’ explosion of data, the new ‘dataverse’ is experiencing a quick inflationary phase. An inflationary expansion that is everything but homogeneous. Clearly, Internet businesses are leading the way fueled, first, by the inherent use of big data related technologies, some of which are even powering the development of the general concept of big data itself, and, second, by the highly competitive and innovative markets in which those companies operate.

However, the use of big data that those Internet giants make is only serving the purposes of their internal business development. In some cases, those companies are disrupting local economies in areas such as transportation or accommodation while bypassing local regulations. Über is a good example of a new paradox. The serious blow that they afflict to the community of local cab drivers not only affects self-employment in the city but also leads to a reduction in the overall local tax collection. To aggravate the bleeding, their systems may very well use, for instance, the data about road outages that the city hall releases in open data formats for routing optimization purposes, while the company locks the vast amount of valuable information gathered through their daily trips around the city.

There is astonishingly (although still some) little evidence of big data providing actual value for cities and communities compared to what it brings internally to the most advanced companies, besides the indirect benefits that provides, through the explosion of new Internet businesses, in those communities where the companies that are effectively using big data at their core of their businesses sit and pay most of their taxes.

As a consequence of this gap between the value that big data provides internally for private organizations and what it does for the general public, we infer that there is a clear potential to increase the economic and social dividends of big data. In the absence of city, state, or nation-wide regulations about data sharing schemes, we feel there is room for an organizational and conversational approach to a mutual relationship between key city players (public and private) that would allow sharing big data to create ‘big knowledge’, in ways that favor public interests while protecting individual privacy and legitimate business assets.

We have been exploring this idea for some time in conversations with researchers at home. Now, and thanks to the support of Real Colegio Complutense, a joint institution between Harvard University and several Spanish universities, we are extending this exploration to Boston area, one of the most innovative millieus in the world. In the following weeks we will meet with prominent urban practitioners, academics and researchers to shape this idea of a ‘shared, city-wide approach, capable of turning dark urban big data into local civic energy’.

We’ll keep you posted about our findings!

P.S. If you feel you have an interesting story on how sharing big data can add social and/or economic value for our cities, we will be more than happy to hear it (just post a comment so we can get in touch).

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