Smart Citizens & Open Data

Future Everything has published a highly interesting publication titled Smart Citizens with contribution from amongst others Dan Hill, Anthony Townsend, Adam Greenfield.

This publication aims to shift the debate on the future of cities towards the central place of citizens, and of decentralised, open urban infrastructures. It provides a global perspective on how cities can create the policies, structures and tools to engender a more innovative and participatory society. The publication contains a series of 23 short essays representing some of the key voices developing an emerging discourse around Smart Citizens.

The full publication can be downloaded here.

The Moblie City contributed with an essay by Martijn de Waal titled  Open Data: From ‘Platform’  to ‘Program’.

Open Data: From ‘Platform’  to ‘Program’.

A few months ago, Dutch designer Mark van der Net launched, a highly interesting example of what can be done with open data. At first, it looks like a mapping tool. The interface shows a – beautifully designed – map of The Netherlands, color coded according to whatever open data set the user selects, varying from geographical height to the location of empty office buildings. As such it is an example of a broader current in which artists, citizens, ngos and business actors have build online tools to visualize all kinds of data, varying from open government data to collaboratively produced data sets focused on issues like environmental pollution.[1]

What makes OSCity interesting is that it allows users to intuitively map various datasets in combination with each other in so called ‘map stories’. For instance, a map of empty office space can be combined with maps of urban growth and decline, the average renting price per square meter of office space, as well as map that displays the prices of houses for sale. The intersection of those maps shows you where empty office spaces are offered at or below half the price of regular houses and apartments. The result is thus not just an aesthetically pleasing state of affairs, but an action map. Policy makers, developers and citizens can use the insights produced by the map to find empty offices that are worthwhile to turn into houses.

There are two important lessons we can learn from this project. First, it shows the importance of programs like OSCity to make open data platforms operationable for various actors. Over the last few years governments and other organizations have started to open up their datasets, often accompanied with high expectations of citizen empowerment and greater transparency of governments. However, case studies have showed that opening up data and building an open platform is only a first step. Dawes and Helbig have shown that various stakeholders have various needs in terms of standards and protocols, whereas both citizens and government officials need the relevant skills to be able to understand and operate upon the data.[2] ‘Vast amounts of useful information are contained in government data systems’, they write, ‘but the systems themselves are seldom designed for use beyond the collecting agency’s own needs.’ In other words: what is needed to deliver on the expectations of open data, is not only a platform – a publicly available database – but also what I have called ‘programs’ – online tools with intuitive interfaces that make this data intelligible and actionable in concert with the needs of the public.[3]

There is a second issue that OSCity raises. As Jo Bates has pointed out, the main question is: who exactly is empowered through programs like this?[4] Will ‘programs’ that make data operationable work for citizens? Or will their procedures, standards and access be organized to benefit corporate interests? These do not have to be necessarily contradicting, but if the goal is to empower citizens, it is important to engage them as stakeholders in the design of these programs.

This is a very important issue as currently many local governments have started to discuss the implementation of so called smart city technologies with major technology companies, as it is these companies that have a lot of know-how and experience with the collection of real-time data. But which data will be collected in what ways? And to whom will it be made available? With what standards and under what conditions?

In the discussions on smart cities, the city is usually framed as a set of infrastructure to be managed as efficiently as possible. ‘The city as a service’[5], this approach is sometimes called, a vision in which urbanites are mainly addressed as consumers. Yet a city is more than just infrastructure, and urbanites are not only consumers but also citizens.

What if these citizens would like to make use of the datasets collected by smart city technologies? For instance, data assembled about traffic could be used commercially to operate roads more efficiently or help paying individual drivers avoid congestion. But what if citizens would like to combine datasets of traffic in an OSCity type of program with data about school locations, to make a point about dangerous routes to school for their children? Will citizens be allowed access to these datasets? Will the data be formatted in such a way that they can use it as such? Or will these data remain in the domain of the companies and institutions that collect them?

If we will decide on the latter, we will end up with smart cities – efficiently managed technopoles.  Only if we opt for the former will we can begin to empower smart citizens that are able to contribute to the ever ongoing process of city-making.

[1] Examples can be found a.o. in Offenhuber, Dietmar and Katja Schechtner eds. Urban Data as Public Space. Vienna: SpringerWienNewYork, 2012

[2] Dawes, Sharon and Natalie Helbig “Information Strategies for Open Government: Challenges and Prospects for Deriving Public Value from Government Transparency”. Electronic Government: Lecture Notes in Computer Science, M.A. Wimmer et al. (Eds.): EGOV 2010, LNCS 6228. 50–60.

[3] De Waal, Martijn The City as Interface. Rotterdam: NAi010 Publishers, 2013.

[4] Bates, Jo. ‘”This is what modern deregulation looks like”: Co-optation and contestation in the shaping of the UK’s Open Government Data Initiative.’ The Journal of Community Informatics  8.2 (2012):

[5] Hwang, Jong–Sung. ‘U-city: The next paradigm of urban development’ M. Foth, ed.,Handbook of Research on Urban Informatics: The Practice and Promise of the Real-Time City. Hershey,PA: IGI Global, 2009.



Martijn de Waal
Martijn de Waal (1972) is a writer, researcher and strategist, working in the field of digital media and (urban) culture. He has worked with and for various clients and organizations such as The Netherlands Architecture Institute, Open Society Foundation, The Architectural League of New York, Lift@Home, Kitchen Budapest, The Mondriaan Foundation and Dutch Public Broadcasting. He is part of the New Media, Public Sphere and Urban Culture research group at the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Groningen, and connected to the department of mediastudies at the University of Amsterdam. In 2009 he was a visiting scholar at MIT's Center for Future Civic Media.