Why cities must look to private-sector data sources

The vast amounts of information being collected by consumer apps and services could have a big impact on how cities plan for transportation and land use.

Data, as most anyone in IT will tell you, is driving innovation. Vast troves of data are at the heart of developments involving artificial intelligence, driverless cars and other breakthrough technologies. Government too has shown the value of bigger, better and more open data, but developments in who collects all this information could prove useful to local planning efforts, according to a new Brookings Institute report.

In the past, the agencies themselves have typically been the main source for, or at least directly involved with, collecting government-relevant data -- whether the goal was using information from the Centers for Disease Control to study the opioid epidemic, or looking to data from sensors to seek insights about asthma.

The Brookings report, however, asserted that the tables are turning with regard to who has the best datasets. Much more data is being collected by apps like Yelp and financial institutions like Mastercard, and all of these data could have a big impact on how cities plan for transportation and land use, the study found.

“It requires a major culture shift to recognize that Google -- via its mapping division -- now knows more about where people move on a daily basis than their peers in local government who build the roads, rails, and sidewalks that facilitate such travel,” the report said.

Information from people’s smartphones, vehicles, fitness trackers, credit cards and map searches have the potential to provide cities with “geospatial movement data at a scale never seen before.”

Brookings found that cities’ current method of collecting information on daily travel habits tend to look only at macro-level commuting patterns, and that the data is collected in the form of surveys that can be outdated by the time they’re released. But digital data can provide a more up-to-date picture of movement within a city or state.

At least one private company has already recognized the value of the data it collects. Uber announced a website called Movement earlier this year where it released limited information on its rides, but cities have pushed the ride-hailing service to provide even more information.

There are some challenges to leveraging private sector data within the government, Brookings found. The first, a challenge with any government technology project, is talent. Skilled data scientist can likely find higher-paying jobs in the private sector, and without such technical expertise, agency executives could be hard-pressed to effectively use the data for decisionmaking.

There are other issues concerning procurement practices (which tend not to neatly account for a subscription service like database sharing), private companies not wanting to give away too much information, and the challenges of ensuring privacy through anonymization.

General data storage infrastructure could also be a concern, Brookings found. “[W]orking with this data is challenging: most databases are created in isolation and are unrelated to one another; the sheer volume of data can tax even the largest storage and processing systems; and much of the data is exclusively private or expensive to procure.”

There is also the issue of data standardization. Increased standardization of open data has been part of the platform for groups like the Data Foundation, and the report said it could be vital to governments adopting the use of private sector data because they “like to make comparisons to their peers to understand various dimensions of performance, but that’s difficult when peers do not generate the same performance measures or even use the same data inputs.”

The Brookings researchers suggested these concerns can be alleviated, however, if the government is really interested in bringing in more private data. This would mean changing procurement practices, bringing on necessary staff and mitigating privacy concerns.

“Data is better than it has ever been,” the report concluded, “and governments have an incredible opportunity to institute the data-related reforms that will help them deliver more equitable, sustainable, and efficient communities.”

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