Governments are making ever-increasing efforts to gather and analyse data as they become more aware of its potential. We take a look at the areas where ‘Big Data’ can be used to improve public services.

How data is improving local authority services

“Data is the new oil. Cities, especially, are becoming aware of its value and of the benefits they can draw in order to improve the way their infrastructures are used and the quality of services they offer their citizens,” declared Arvind Satyam, Managing Director, Business Development - Industry Solutions for the Internet of Everything project at CISCO Systems, recently. However, “although most cities are aware of the value of data, many don’t know how to get the best out of it.” A report by global management consultancy McKinsey on the status of digital technology in the United States entitled ‘Digital America: A tale of the haves and have-mores’ ranks the government in 18th place, out of a total of 22 players, when it comes to adoption of digital technologies. This delay in the use of technology has direct consequences in terms of hard cash. The report points out that if local governments made better use of Big Data they could save $460 billion by 2020.

And in addition to being an economic challenge, as Shaina Doar, Director of Policy at Sidewalk Labs – the Google subsidiary which helps local government move into the smart city era – notes in a blog post: “Those startling figures represent a huge missed opportunity to revolutionise the delivery of health care, education, public safety, and other basic services, greatly improving quality of life for more Americans as a result”. However, things are starting to change. An increasing number of US states are now hiring data scientists and a number of reports highlight the potential of using data appropriately in order to improve the quality of local government services.


Improving urban mobility...

Local governments can boast that by using Big Data they have improved the quality of services for their citizens in some very practical ways. The potential for managing urban mobility flows better is very clear. Proper use of data can for example help drivers find a place to park, telling them where there are available spots so that they can get there fast, thus reducing traffic on the roads. Smart traffic lights, fed by data, can improve traffic flow in some areas. Holistic navigation apps bringing together all the data drawn from the various available means of transport, from bicycles to trams, pooled cars and private cars, have the potential to optimise everyone’s journey around the city. Placemeter’s open urban intelligence platform forwards to the local authorities all the data linked to people flows in cities, in order to enable them to manage public spaces better.“We can now know where people spend their time in the city, and when. So if a public place sees heavy footfall every day between five and seven o’clock in the evening, the local authorities can adapt their services, strengthen security or lay out the space differently to take this factor into account,” points out Arvind Satyam. Meanwhile Cisco and Placemeter are teaming up with Paris City Hall to analyse people flows on the ‘Place de la Nation’, a large, circular plaza in the eastern part of Paris, in the context of a renovation project that City Hall is running.

In Chicago, Big Data enables detection of public health violations at restaurants

… and public services

In addition to improving mobility, Big Data enables local governments to optimise their services in many areas, such as public health. In Chicago, the Department of Innovation and Technology has recently developed an algorithm that can actually predict public health violations at restaurants. It takes into account nine variables, including the history of violations a given restaurant has committed, the time since the last inspection and the danger and cleanliness levels of the neighbourhood. The algorithm can spot serious violations on average seven days earlier than the method traditionally used by the local authorities. Given that the city of Chicago has three million inhabitants and 15,000 restaurants but only thirty-odd health inspectors, it is vital to optimise resources in order to guarantee citizens better protection. Big Data can also help disadvantaged people. In New York, cross-platform marketing analytics company SumAll uses data analysis to list families who risk being evicted from their homes and then helps them to cope with their situation.

New York draws on data to help disadvantaged people

Towards customised services

Big Data also helps local authorities to customise their services, i.e. to provide services suited to each individual situation rather than providing standard offerings tailored to a non-existent profile. A number of US cities have for example started to use a tool called the Public Safety Assessment, a risk assessment tool that helps judges make evidence-based decisions about which defendants should be detained prior to trial and which can be safely released. The tool uses data gathered from a million and a half different cases from three hundred US jurisdictions. It takes into account the defendant’s criminal history, current charge, and current age. In this way, the Public Safety Assessment helps to reduce both the jail population and the number of crimes committed by offenders awaiting trial.

In Singapore, the authorities use Big Data for a very different purpose: they have developed the Beeline app which enables citizens to pre-book seats on a direct shuttle to their destinations.


Strengthening trust in government

By fostering transparency, Big Data can also be an efficient means of boosting citizens’ trust in the authorities. “I think Open Data can help to create greater transparency, to give citizens a clear picture of what the government’s doing so they know where their tax dollars are going, so that they see how important it is to participate in the democratic process,” Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf told L’Atelier last year. With this in mind, Oakland City Hall set up a website called Open budget: Oakland. This provides exhaustive intelligible visualisation of the city’s budget so that citizens can understand what their taxes are paying for. The infographic was designed by young ‘Open Oakland’ volunteers who are placing the new information and communication technologies at the service of the community and looking to open up and use relevant available data. City Hall provides the premises where they work. During the last municipal elections, young volunteers also drew up an infographic to highlight the various candidates’ sources of funding, with the aim of making the electoral process less opaque and more trustworthy. “Governments can increase their trust ratings by giving citizens access to data, and thus giving them a clearer view of the world around them”, says Arvind Satyam. Similar to the dark matter known to scientists but not to the man in the street, data is invisible but it still has a profound impact on our environment.

Oakland is one of the pioneer cities in the use of Open Data.

Empowering citizens

Promoting the use of data also serves to boost interaction between citizens and government, as it helps establish a relationship of trust, which today is often seriously lacking. San Francisco-based startup NextRequest has created an intuitive platform that allows citizens to request access to any public document. Local authorities in Asheville, North Carolina, have set up their SimpliCity website to enable residents to find out all about their town, from crime statistics to local taxes, planning applications, and so on. The NYC311 app gives New Yorkers the means to alert the authorities to any issues with public property or services, e.g. if the garbage collection has been suspended, a parking meter is not working or a school has been vandalised. During the winter of 2015, which was particularly harsh in the east of the country, a number of cities, including Boston and Chicago, developed apps allowing citizens to signal parts of roads that were snowbound or icy. Every such initiative displays the same desire to bring citizens closer to the local authorities and to make democracy more transparent and efficient..

In Montreal, the Ubifood app helps to combat food wastage

Strengthening community links

Last but not least, Big Data is a means of strengthening people’s civic engagement, of welding the community together and improving the way the city works. In Jakarta, where garbage collection is a real challenge for the local authorities, residents can use an app to indicate spots from where rubbish should be collected. And residents can get paid for taking on the role of rubbish collectors themselves. In Montreal, the Ubifood app enables food stores, cafés and restaurants with food nearing its ‘use-by’ date to publish promotional deals on their food products. With just one click, app users can see what is on offer in their neighbourhood, pay for it via the app, and then go and pick it up from the store or eatery.

Finally we should mention the MyResponder app, developed in Singapore, which summons people trained in CPR and automated external defibrillator (AED) use who happen to be in the vicinity when someone has a heart attack or suddenly falls ill.

Data may sometimes appear to be abstract and removed from reality, but it can certainly help to save lives.


By Guillaume Renouard