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Open Data: What are the benefits for cities?




by Rory Williams

When you think of Open Data, you might imagine hackers secretly scratching around on computer systems, finding government data to release to the world. Certainly many advocates of open data are civic activists concerned about government accountability, but most gather data that is publicly available.They tend to focus on things like how much money is spent on public projects, how politicians use their discretionary budgets, or how many healthcare professionals there are for every 1,000 city residents. These things are – or should be – public knowledge.

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The key idea behind open data is that it should be not only freely available, but also free of restrictions so that it can be used by anyone, preferably to advance knowledge and understanding for the common good.

The problem is that even when data is available, often it is in a format that makes it practically inaccessible – in impenetrable databases, or buried in long reports.

There are ways around this. It’s fairly easy, for example, to find out how many times the Minister of Education has mentioned “gangsterism” in public speeches, as an indication that this problem is being addressed (or at least considered) in local schools. There are software tools that can “scrape” this data up and summarise it for you.

But what if you want to know something in more detail, like how many people use public transport in Cape Town? This is more challenging.

The City does in fact have a very comprehensive database on passengers using all modes of public transport. Prasa also undertakes its own surveys of train passengers (they are doing one right now, in fact).This data can be of immense help in planning and designing improvements to the transport system, issuing permits to operators, or understanding how public transport subsidies are being used. But it’s not designed for easy access, which makes it difficult for transport planners, stakeholders or civic activists to be informed. It’s not really open.Open data could also allow public consultation to be more meaningful by providing the public with data that underpins plans that are being reviewed. Let’s say the City is planning a controversial new development outside the urban edge. The City should be able demonstrate why this sprawl is necessary, and the impact it will have on transport, water supply, sewerage pipelines, schools, hospitals and so on. If stakeholder input is to be constructive and taken seriously, then data should be available to make the case.

Where open data has further potential, however, is in providing citizens, business owners, NGOs and others with the tools they need to go about their own business: Seeing which business competitors have been issued with permits; understanding availability of transport capacity for freight; researching backlogs in housing and social services; quantifying traffic that runs through residential areas.

Public data can enable people to be more effective in developing their own plans, and in responding to the plans of others. The more accessible data is, the more effective planning can be, and ultimately the more inclusive and dynamic the city will be.