Many people do not see a connection between open data and smart cities. After many years involved in ICT and city governance I would argue that high quality open data is an essential building block for smarter cities.
In this regard there are two schools of thought because the concepts of smart cities and perhaps open data are still very much evolving and open to interpretation. While the Open Knowledge Foundation now provides a strong leadership role in terms of defining open data, the same level of clarity can’t yet be applied to smart cities. There are many views and many definitions of what a smart city actually is. All involve the use of data and technology to support decision making and governance. However, the key difference of opinion is usually in the level of involvement of the citizenry in decision making. Some people see smart technology and the smart city approach as an opportunity for exerting greater control and greater power. Others (including myself) see the rise of the internet and the proliferation of information as a route to empowerment for all.
While it is technically possible to have a smart city without open data, there is a danger that this could lead to the big brother approach as articulated by George Orwell in his novel 1984. With a small number of people controlling smart technology the opportunity for corruption would be considerable. However, I would argue that those who wish to minimise information for the masses are applying 19th century thinking to what should be a a major social advancement in the 21st century.
In truth, most governments are now realising, slowly but surely that the march towards transparency and openness is as unstoppable as the tide was to king Canute. Because the internet provides instant searchable information, the 19th century model of government whereby crucial information was always hidden from the masses is now no longer feasible. This is leading to increasingly frustrated people in most countries as politics and governance are lagging way behind more progressive populations. If anything the gap between the requirements of the people and what is being delivered by their governments is growing. Endless attempts to control or to suppress the internet by various governments for all sorts of reasons have failed. Many governments are now at last beginning to change their mindsets not because they want to but because they have no choice.
The opportunities for good governance using smart technology and open data are becoming apparent to all concerned. So much so, that countries right across the globe are racing to become the smartest and the most open in order to attract smart investment and smart people. The Open Data Barometer is perhaps the most popular ranking system for open data and is fairly robust. Smart city rankings are more problematic. For example the European Smart Cities ranking devised by the Technical University of Vienna does not include Barcelona, London or Nice which are listed by Forbes as three of their top five smart cities in the world.
The elephant in the living room is that a clear worldwide definition needs to be established as to what a smart city actually is. An interesting article by Mark Deakin and Husam Al Waer addresses that issue and attempts to bring some clarity to the matter. They argue that social intelligence is getting lost and that marketing requirements are the key driving force of the moment. I have no doubt that a clearer definition of a smart city will develop over time.
The ongoing emergence of the Internet of Things and sensor based open data is perhaps crucial to the development of smart cities. While it is not absolutely necessary for sensor based information to be openly available, it is certainly advantageous in terms of providing information to citizens, business, academia and government. For example, it makes little sense for all organisations using traffic data to put in place a duplicate set of sensors. That is not actually very smart. A co-ordinated, more open approach to data provision encapsulates the very essence of smartness.
Niall Ó Brolcháin is a researcher with the eGovernment unit of the Insight Centre for Data Analytics and an ICT consultant. He has acted as an advisor on Open Data to the Irish Government. Previously he was a Government Senator and acted as spokesperson on Communications Energy and Natural resources in Seanad Eireann. He also served as Mayor of Galway City from 2006 to 2007.