The “smart city” buzz is as loud as it is undefined. It’s been a bullhorn for civic technologists, a selling point for IT merchants and a strategic philosophy for localities planning data innovation initiatives.
To put some definition around the term -- loosely interpreted as innovative use of data and analytics to promote economic success and sustainable development -- on April 24 San Francisco played host to a smart cities private and public sector gathering, organized by Agrion global business network, the meeting was aimed at demystifying frontline challenges cities and the private sector face. Topics came in an Easter basket of varying issues and talking points. Open data grabbed much of the show, vendors lofted procurement questions and two sets of panelists briefed attendees to the latest on-the-ground insights in smart city development.
As a brief sweep of the event, here are some highlights and takeaways.
Where We Are Now
The first thing that should be said revolves around what wasn’t said. The panelists, which included Palo Alto Senior Technologist and Open Data Advocate Michael Tsao and San Francisco Chief Data Officer Joy Bonaguro, did not announce any major deployments of predictive analytic systems or the installation of city wide data gathering systems. The meeting was more about starting points. Dialogue gravitated around first efforts at open data programs, how cities should harness local civic tech startups and what policies could help set a foundation for future smart cities.
Finding Value in Open Data
Bonaguro was adamant in her distaste for what she called “data dumps,” those unintended repositories of random and often arbitrary data that are published online with little or no forethought to usage. Open data initiatives, she said, should be about promoting high-value data projects inside and outside of government -- as opposed to open data for the sake of open data. Tsao recommended that cities reach out to potential data users locally -- businesses, academics, entrepreneurs and others who might engage -- to understand what is most useful. Ian Kalin, open data director for platform provider Socrata, observed that much of open data's initial value is realized by internal staff and later by external users.
The Three-Step Data Evolution
As a stakeholder and spectator to a diverse array of open data projects, Kalin says Socrata sees a three-step maturing process for municipal open data programs. It begins when a city experiments successfully with open data and publishes a few data sets. This success, he said, leads to a second effort that engages the public through hackathons and other events. The process matures when open data starts to be used to answer tangible real-world problems in communities. Kalin advised localities interested in open data to simply experiment -- not to be overwhelmed -- and gain gradual momentum.
New Policies for Smart Growth
Touching on how to enable smart city growth, Bonaguro recommended weaving smart city policies into a municipality’s long-term operational goals. Broad policies that encapsulate city departments, systematized programs and integration of interdependent departments — such as transit and city development — can help establish smart city frameworks.