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Jack Hardinges

Policy advisor at the Open Data Institute

How cities are using private sector data

Cities have long built and maintained infrastructure. Their roads, bridges and cycle lanes, as well as their communications networks and other utilities, underpin the daily lives of billions of people around the world.

As our economies and societies become more reliant on data to help make effective decisions, cities also have a responsibility to build and maintain data infrastructure that supports their citizens’ needs, values and priorities. Access to data collected and held by private sector organisations is a vital part of this infrastructure. It can help us understand and tackle the big challenges we face, from the use of Facebook data to support communities in the aftermath of natural disasters to reducing congestion in urban environments using running and cycling data collected by Strava.

Not all cities have access to the data they need to do this, however.

In some cases, a lack of access to data that could be used to inform decision-making is the result of short-sighted procurement policies and agreements with companies to deliver public services. Cities can find themselves unable to access data generated by these partnerships, including performance information related to the delivery of a service, and data generated about its users or the resources used to deliver it. It is only recently that cities like Barcelona have begun to incorporate data access provisions into their contracts with telecoms providers and other private sector organisations.

The attitudes of private sector organisations towards cities’ advances for data have not always helped. The Copenhagen City Data Exchange found that “it was often difficult to retrieve data from private companies because they viewed the platform as ‘parasitic’ and of no benefit to them.” Some policymakers have had to commission research based on convoluted hacks or workarounds – such as scraping public adverts for short term lets or “sending students to catch rides en masse” – just to understand what’s happening within their cities. While companies are understandably wary of opening up access to competitors, this is often used as a reason for blocking access to data for public scrutiny or use.

Some cities have introduced new laws or operating terms to try to gain access to private sector data. New York’s Taxi and Limousine Commission introduced rules in 2017 requiring rideshare companies to share data about their passengers’ journeys with the city. There has been resistance to cities’ attempts to do this, however. Seattle has ended up fighting a costly battle in court with Uber and Lyft over public access to the data they hold, while Californian cities could find their initial efforts to mandate data sharing by micromobility services curtailed by state legislation that would limit their powers to do so.

Where cities seek to access private sector data, there can be a tendency to push for as much data as possible rather than considering the risks and specific uses it can be put to. Some uses might require granular, real-time access to data held by companies (such as for emergency services); others, including planning or research, can likely be satisfied by aggregate data collected over a period of time. Bundling very different uses of the data together to pursue a “data guzzling” approach not only gives private sector organisations a legitimate reason to turn down requests for data, but will ultimately lose citizens’ trust and their willingness for data about them to be used.

Despite these challenges, there are examples emerging of cities and private sector organisations working together effectively. Earlier this year, Uber announced that it would begin sharing rider location data with the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management in emergency situations. Transport for London’s partnership with Waze means that its operations centre can use data generated by the GPS navigation app to better manage the city’s road network.

These developments show that, just as cities evolved to govern traditional forms of infrastructure and make sure they were there when we needed them, they need to learn to do the same for data. For forward looking companies, they also represent an opportunity to build relationships with the cities they operate in that help to tackle the big challenges we face, such as ageing populations and climate change.

At the Open Data Institute we’ve recently started a project to unearth more of these examples and help cities, private sector organisations and others think through their approaches to increasing access to data.

Jack Hardinges is a policy advisor at the Open Data Institute