How smart cities initiative is marrying municipalities to big data endeavours

Experts debate whether municipalities or the private sector are best qualified to handle big data

Anni Sinnemäki, deputy mayor of Helsinki, says her city is trying to be a test bed for collaborators using the Finnish capital's open data to innovate | Shutterstock

It’s been nearly a decade since the City of Helsinki turned on its valves to open data, publicly releasing information on everything from regional carbon emissions to the distribution of business permits.

In the words of the Finnish capital’s deputy mayor, Helsinki wants to become a “test bed” for collaborators who can use this data to innovate, create efficiencies in city management or simply challenge the status quo.

“We’ve seen more private citizen initiatives or NGOs or just sort of hackers who develop the data and make use of it,” Anni Sinnemäki told a Vancouver audience March 14 at the Globe Forum 2018. “I wouldn’t say opening the data in Helsinki in a systematic way, it has not brought us a flow of private-sector partners that take the data and have successes with that.”

Speaking at a panel devoted to the intertwining of big data with smart cities – a global initiative that is pushing cities to use electronic data to more efficiently manage their services – Sinnemäki said her city is “in the process of still finding the best models” for marrying its open-data initiatives with the private sector.

To date, she said the most successful arrangements have been between large companies combining their efforts with startups that are using the city’s data in various ways.

In Canada, the federal government is examining ways to get municipalities and the private sector to better collaborate in their use of big data.

Last month Ottawa launched the Smart Cities Challenge, a contest calling on municipalities to partner with businesses and academics to use data to solve problems ranging from traffic congestion to bureaucratic red tape.

The federal government is offering $75 million in prize money to various winners who come up with new ways to use data.

Gerard Peets, director general of the Smart Cities Challenge at Infrastructure Canada, acknowledged there is a disconnect between the data municipalities possess and what they’re able to deliver with it.

“There are lots of examples of data that’s collected at a community level that can, when put in the hands of innovative companies and innovators, really drive value and create the potential for new products, new services that, in fact, municipalities themselves aren’t the best people to provide,” he said, speaking at the same panel as Sinnemäki.

“Increasingly as we go forward, we’re going to see less of a monopoly on the part of municipalities in terms of delivering services, and data is the way others are going to get involved.”