Local governments have a new tool for comparing performance levels in their cities to those in other municipalities. IBM recently launched City Forward, a Web portal aggregating publicly available data from 55 cities worldwide.

The free-to-use site offers a visualization feature enabling users to create comparison graphs. The portal also operates like a Web forum where visualizations and analysis can be shared.

The site captures performance statistics on education, safety, health, transportation, land use, utilities, energy, environment, personal income, spending, population growth and employment. Much of this data has long been public record and available on the Web, but it’s frequently delivered by individual agencies in disparate formats. IBM contends that comparing visualizations of the various data sets in a central place makes it easier for users to identify potential connections and similarities between cities.

The visualization element of City Forward makes connections especially easy to spot, said Ari Fishkind, public affairs manager for IBM’s corporate affairs and citizenship division. “The law of unintended consequences is never more apparent than when you have graphics that show how well-intentioned public policies don’t pan out quite the way they were planned,” Fishkind said.

For example, data in City Forward that measures traffic jams in a given city might not only speak volumes about commuting habits and road conditions, but also correlate to economic impact and air quality, IBM said.

Scott Kratz, vice president for education at the National Building Museum (NBM) that exhibits architecture, hopes city planners will use City Forward to explore more progressive layouts, such as communities that build commercial space, doctors’ offices and other necessities within walking distance of homes.

Kratz said websites like City Forward could promote this fundamental change to city planning by illustrating the local economic impact of owning cars. For example, according to AAA, the average American spends an average of $8,485 per year on their cars. A collaborative project called the Intelligent Communities program, which includes the National Building Museum, estimates that only $1,390 of that total stays in the driver’s local economy. The rest is spent on goods and services like gasoline and car insurance, which don’t directly benefit the economy of the driver’s community. By comparing these types of choices on the City Forward website, Kratz hopes citizens might want to live in communities that are pedestrian-friendly.

Kratz said he views portals like City Forward as part of the new wave of technologies designed to make sense out of open data. He said many first-generation open data initiatives, like the federal government’s Data.gov, were limited in their usefulness.

“Look at all of the data on Data.gov. I challenge you to make any of that information useful,” Kratz commented. “It’s great to have it out there — and that’s the first step — but how do we start visualizing that data and make it useful?”

IBM designed and built the City Forward software through its philanthropic program, with consultation from universities, cities and a range of not-for-profits, such as The Brookings Institution, MIT and New York University. The company owns and manages the website as a free, public service and will continue to add publicly available data and information. Over time, IBM will broaden the type and amount of information contained, the number of cities represented, and the website’s features and functions.

The company pitched City Forward as a tool that regions might want to use to compete for, or implement, an IBM Smarter Cities Challenge grant. The competitive grant program is providing $50 million worth of technology and consulting services to 100 cities worldwide over the next three years.  One of the conditions for Smarter Cities Challenge Grants asks cities to clearly articulate local urban challenges that technology might help address. IBM announced Wednesday, March 9, that 24 cities had won grants for 2011.

Andy Opsahl  |  Staff Writer