Green Cities, Open Data

[How the Open Data movement can fuel the push for more sustainable cities is something that I been mulling over for years. I finally had the chance to write something on it for Sustainable Cities Canada.]


Toronto is the least bikeable of Canada's large cities, and we've got the numbers to prove it. Released earlier this month, Bikescore is an online calculator that ranks the overall bikeability of North American cities. Victoria, Vancouver, Montreal lead the pack in Canada (T.O. comes in at 7th place, well after Saskatoon, Calgary and Halifax). With eye-catching “heat maps” Bikescore also looks inside the top 10 Canadian and American cities to show where cyclists will feel most at home.

The maps themselves are excellent and well worth a browse. But beyond that, Bikescore is an example of what is happening at the overlap of urban sustainability and another force that is reshaping how we inhabit our cities: the open data movement. [keep reading @SSC or...]

Open Data Dividends
The open data movement is a push to make public the reams of government data on everything from transportation use to water infrastructure. Advocacy groups like Montreal Ouvert and datalibre.ca have sprung up across Canada and the U.S. Thanks in part to their pressure, both Federal and State / Provincial governments have embraced the movement. Cities in particular have responded to the call. In Canada alone there are close to 20 municipalities with some form of open data program. Vancouver, one of the first “open” cities, has been sharing data since 2009.

The movement claims multiple dividends, not least being increased government transparency and the democratization of access to publicly collected data (which can otherwise set you back a hefty fee). But another attraction for municipalities is the possibility of crowd-sourcing innovative applications. Bikescore, and its even more successful parent Walkscore, are perfect examples.

Crowd-Sourcing Innovation
The backbone of both services is information on urban space and transit that allows them to create detailed calculations about the livability of urban areas. To do this they combine scores based on bike infrastructure, terrain, transit access and the proximity of other amenities (parks, schools, shops etc.) . The end result is clear, insightful and directly linked to the current push to create denser, mixed-use and highly livable neighbourhoods.

Much of the underlying data may be collected by municipalities, but planning departments rarely have software engineers on staff. Making the data public can put it in the hands of people with the skills to push it to its limits. In this case a professional team that includes former Microsoft staffers working in partnership with researchers at UBC and SFU.

Cities are also using application designing contests to challenge local software developers. New York City, one of the first to try this approach, just wrapped up the third edition of their annual “Big Apps” contest. My favourite winners include a particularly elegant transit planner , and an application that helps would-be gardeners locate and negotiate access to vacant city land in their neighbourhood.

Datascape: Challenge and Opportunity
City's are fast getting a new kind of topography, a datascape that – thanks to our mobile devices – is being layered over our existing cities and transforming the way we interact with urban spaces. The challenge of deep urban sustainability is in many cases one of unlocking innovation and making the most of available resources. I've long argued that that isn't something that municipalities can do on their own. But models for truly meaningful public engagement – not just consultation – are limited. What the open data movement provides is way to change that and boost the processing power focused on the riddle of creating greener cities.

There are many open questions. Which city will be the first to have a truly multi-modal transit app, or one that helps chart tree canopy cover and reduce the urban heat island effect? Which one will be first to show residents average waste generated in their neighbourhoods, or the water and energy that is consumed there?

Finding answers will require cities to share more and better data, and developers to spot how that data can be used most effectively. Urban sustainability is a perfect challenge, and a perfect opportunity, for the open data movement. We are all waiting to see whether cities and software developers will rise to the occasion.

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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

Info on my consulting work, c.v. and current research focus is all here.