Efficient, healthy cities are competitive cities. Today, governments are finding ways to build surprising new capabilities with less, using technology and data. With a little ingenuity and focused goals, most cities can build sustainable, intelligent technology solutions with the power to reduce costs, improve the city’s services and enhance its citizens’ quality of life. According to Microsoft-sponsored research from IDC, government organizations worldwide stand to gain $206 billion in value from data over the next four years by connecting data streams, using new analytics tools, delivering insights to more people, and what’s more, doing it quickly.

The fact is, most cities can begin building value from technology today for less than they think. Every situation is unique, but nearly any city can make considerable progress beginning with three key principles:
 
Start with one priority area
Cities that are successful begin by using data to tackle a very specific issue. Maybe it’s improving public safety. Maybe it’s driving better use of resources such as water and electricity. Municipal governments should look at those scenarios and find out where it makes sense to start based on the city’s circumstances, priorities and capacity. From there, build a plan and a structure to focus on a specific area with specific goals and targeted business objectives. 
 
Apply data and analytics to processes and resources 
There is a lot of data out there today, and cities struggle with finding the right data to build something useful. The possibilities are almost limitless, but there is a method to identifying areas where data can be harnessed. 
 
Start with the actual, real-world process, facility or resource and think about how better data can augment what’s already there. Also take a look at the devices and assets you already own and have access to. You already have more than you might think. Mobile devices and sensors can be used in a variety of ways to collect or distribute data from the field. You can then align this information with target processes to drive improved insights and business outcomes. 
 
For example, the City of New York employs sensors to monitor air quality. If one senses an abnormality, it will automatically create an “event” — in this case an alert — that leads to an actionable response. Other cities are using an approach based on light and motion sensors to make streetlights smarter so they respond to conditions year round with just the right amount of light — saving millions in energy costs. The City of Helsinki, Finland, is using sensors in busses combined with analytics to improve rider satisfaction and reduce fuel consumption.
 
Weather information, social media and sensors in roads have shown benefits for managing traffic. If it’s education, think about devices and software that can empower educators and create efficiency in schools. If it’s public safety, connecting mobile devices and social media to 911 centers can create a more powerful, coordinated response to emergencies. There’s almost no limit to what you can do, so be creative.
 
Make sure data and technologies all speak the same language 
I’m listing this last, but it’s actually No. 1. If the city’s traffic sensors can’t communicate with its back-end servers, that data remains in gridlock. If a valuable database is sitting in a back room somewhere and no one has access to it, it’s a tree falling in the woods. To make data useful, it has to be usable. 
 
There are four main trends in technology that can begin enabling a city to reap big benefits: Cloud, mobile and embedded devices, social media, and analytics. The only way to really unify all of these technologies is through a proven platform that works cohesively from end to end using open standards. Cities should look for a secure data capture and cloud platform, powerful and modern analytics software, familiar productivity tools and technologies that can work with the same data from the moment it is collected by sensors or mobile devices, all the way to desktop, laptop and tablet computers in use by city employees. 
 
Once these three principles are in place, nearly any city can take a step closer to becoming a globally competitive city. The success of a single, well-defined and carefully managed data initiative can carry forward as a city grows more ambitious in its vision.
 
It’s an exciting time to be a city manager today. The future is literally at your fingertips. 
 
Kim Nelson is executive director of Microsoft’s State and Local Government Solutions organization. Before joining Microsoft, she spent 26 years in various executive level positions in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the U.S. government.