In the coming months, we’ll be running a series of articles based on the Lab’s 100 Urban Trends glossaries. Each week, our writers will focus on a trend that is meaningful to them, sharing anecdotes, opinions, and real-world illustrations of urban issues that shape our lives. Today’s trend: Urban Data.
If there’s one person you might suspect to be leading the enthusiastic pack of cheerleaders heralding the arrival of big data in cities today, it would be Eric Henderson. Henderson is Conversation Curator for Markets for Good, a joint initiative of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the financial firm Liquidnet, focused on better understanding how data can serve the social sector. So there’s no doubt that he’s optimistic about big data’s future. But when it comes to the present, he’s less of an optimist than a hardnosed realist: big data has a lot of potential to change cities for the good, he says, but there’s a lot of groundwork to be laid, and people still need to get their hands pretty darn dirty before the fun can really actually begin.
I called Henderson recently to get his thoughts on the state of this Urban Trend, as someone who is elbows-deep in the data world every day. “Is data driving change right now in cities? In a word, no,” he told me bluntly. “The huge conversation . . . about ‘how can we get better at using it?’ is still going on. It’s much too early to say, ‘yes, our cities are data-driven.’”
Henderson points to two main reasons for this. The first, he says, is the quality of the data. While many hail the virtues of crowdsourced and open data (both of which, of course, have their place and time), the quantity and breadth of data that really needs to be collected, and that is collected in a way that will be accurate and win over skeptics, is labor-intensive and costly and, quite frankly, needs someone to foot the bill.
Whether it’s governments, NGOs, or social entrepreneurs looking to make changes, Henderson says, “The budget should reflect the priority for the data that we need. If data’s not free and we have to collect it, then we have to find room in our budgets and business priorities to go find the information.”
The second reason he points to is an enormous gap in data sharing worldwide. For all the opening of data troves we’ve seen over the past several years, we still have yet to see a platform that completely and efficiently pulls it all together. It is not yet possible to search all data collections for data on one subject matter at the click of a button without searching each trove individually. And even once someone pulls those data sets together, they may not be put together in an interoperable manner that allows all the data to easily interact.
If such a platform were to actually exist, it would then greatly reduce the amount of data gathering that needs to be done in the first place, because a proper system of sharing would help avoid redundant collection. Some platforms exist on a smaller scale for certain NGO sectors or political parties, such as NationBuilder, the Community Organizing Platform which Sam Lockwood strongly recommended during the Mumbai Lab for the city to begin consolidating formal and informal data to enable data-led planning. But this platform does not yet exist on the larger scale necessary for it to be of use to the broader spectrum of the social sector. In fact, Markets for Good sees the issue as being so pressing that they recently launched a $100,000-competition for someone to develop just this platform.
“The sort of hackathon that uses existing data, that’s good, but you drop one level below to the infrastructures, and that’s what I’m talking about: where am I getting data from, which data should I collect, who’s paying for it, and what means do I have to share that data when I need to share it to help solve a problem?” says Henderson. “Heavily data-interested is a good thing [to be], but data-driven has got a definition and it means, ‘yes, we collect this data, we analyze it—because data is not the object in and of itself—we share it, and now here’s what I think we should do.’ Right now, those last steps are missing.”
In short: web developers, start your engines if you want big data to start saving our cities. We need you out here!