This is heavy, Doc: Overcoming City Challenges Using Data

Do you remember the second Back to the Future movie? The way our present time was shown there, with flying cars, odd architecture, and ridiculous metallic clothing reminiscent of space travel? But look around - today's hoverboards don’t even hover, let alone flying vehicles. In fact, cities haven't changed all that much in recent decades and we're still pretty far from this sci-fi, futuristic reality.

However, while less noticeable to the public, a rather important and unexpected innovation that has occurred in cities is a complete paradigm shift in city management. Instead of traditional administration of land and infrastructure, municipalities seek to take care of residents' well-being. Adopting a citizen-centric approach and using available data, many cities are now taking their first steps towards smart decision-making in different areas, from energy management to citizen engagement. However, such a transition requires not only ideological, but also formal, bureaucratic changes and new procedures which some municipalities are already adopting and putting into place - all driven by city data!

One of the best cases we have found globally occurred in Louisville Kentucky, a city that suffers from some of the worst air quality levels in the US, and was in fact rated as one of the worst locations in the US to live in with Asthma. While the mayor of Louisville realized that beating pollution was not an immediate option for his city, he was committed to improve the life of people living with Asthma within his community and turned to the power of data partnering with a technology company, Propellor Health, to deploy sensor equipped inhalers, collecting 1.2 Million data points about the location, the time and the severity of specific Asthma attacks. The findings were astounding! Correlations were found between ambient temperature, traffic routes, the location of industrials zones and the location of city trees - providing the city a clear path to action - changing traffic routes, rezoning sites and planting trees along major transport corridors. The results, not less impressive, brought an 82% decrease in use of rescue inhalers in the city.


Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, the city with almost 25% poverty rate, local authorities partnered with behavioural scientists from Columbia University to find a way to notify its senior citizens of the Water Discount scheme that for some reason was vastly underused. After data analysis and some practical trials, a working group determined a number of methods aimed to improve communication with a particular age group, including use of different sized fonts and envelope colours, that led to savings of about $186 million for disadvantaged residents.


Another amazing project was implemented in San Francisco, where the municipality decided to make their streets safer for bikes and pedestrians. The team of experts in collaboration with the Department of Public Health and the Department of Transportation developed a platform to identify the most dangerous intersections. Turns out, just 12% of intersections result in 70% of major injuries. Using this data, city government launched a plan to build its first protected intersection with rather simple design features like concrete islands, making streets much safer at a minimal cost to the city.


But data driven initiatives go beyond US cities. One of the most remarkable examples in Europe is Amsterdam which went further than just taking local actions. Now the city has a comprehensive and coherent strategy on how to improve urban life with data analytics. Special attention is paid to collaboration with stakeholders from both public and private sectors and constant experimentation – for the last 9 years Amsterdam has initiated more than 80 pilot projects to improve its operation.


Modern progressive cities are known not for the number of sensors they installed, but rather for how successfully they convert collected data into insights, working projects and policies. It takes a lot of effort to transform the mindset at all levels of city management, as well as to attract citizens and experts from different areas not only to identify the problems and root cause but also to solve these problems themselves. However, the result can be much more exciting than having flying cars.

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