Data in the Smart City – The lightbulb moment when you understand we need to develop a Data Culture

The very idea of big data can be exhausting. However, data is just data. Without a context, strategic questions and well-defined opportunities, we lose the potential of truly harnessing the power of the smart cities agenda. Not only do we need to collect and communicate data to a central point, we need to crunch it.

Council Associate Partner Place Design Group explains in the article below the necessity of building a data culture within our government and non-government sectors.  We hope you enjoy it. — Adam Beck


By Chris Isles, Place Design Group

Data is to smart cities as electricity is to the light bulb.  

A simple analogy, but one that appropriately connects the data and the smart city concepts. For these two in my view are inseparable.  One can’t reach its potential without the other and conversely, the other is nothing without a reason for it existing. 

Data is ultimately just facts, figures and numbers and in and of itself not that important or useful. It is the insights we get from the data that creates the value and the opportunity. Data by itself is like electricity. Nice to know it is available at a power point for us to connect to, but without something to plug in and use that power, it is kind of useless.  So, you need both bulb and power or in this context you need both the smart city and data to power it.

The world is quickly gravitating to the smart city concept but away from data at the same time. Perhaps this is to be expected after all, it’s pretty cool.  How can you go past autonomous cars, sensors, parking apps and stuff, and not be captured?  It is much easier for people to grasp onto some of this low-hanging sexy tech fruit and far sexier than big data concepts and elements, which was really our last fad from a few years ago that no one really jumped onboard.

Unfortunately, we can’t afford for the smart city agenda to move along without the old ‘Big Data’ story coming along with it.  So, if we forget about the Big part of Big Data for now, and just talk about the ‘New and Improved’ data story, perhaps we won’t lose so many people on this journey. Because it is imperative that people new to smart cities understand the inherent and necessary data play that will empower smart city concepts. 

But what I have learned from the missed ‘big data’ fad is that for data to have a big impact, it first needs to be understood.  In making data consumable and visual, the goal must be to get the data to tell its story. Traditionally this was thought to be done via graphics, heat maps, geospatial overlays or infographics, all of which are okay, but still not overly consumable or friendly. But fortunately the smart city has the communication solution for data’s problem.  It comes with inbuilt communication tools.

The reality is we will stop communicating the data and rather communicate the outcomes or experiences that the data creates for us.  It will be the simplicity of the ‘app’ or parking solution that matters, and how easily I can find a park, not the frequency or quality of the data under it that matters.  Do I want a map of parking sensors? No.  I want to know where to park my car. Smart city apps will be the saviour of data communication.  What data the app runs on and how it gets the knowledge will be irrelevant, yet also implicitly critical that we at least have the data.

In this sense data has gone from being 'nice to have' to be an essential part of the future of smart city thinking.  Data will be the unseen infrastructure of smart cities and data will be as important as any road in these cities of the future.  The future of our cities really hinges on how ‘city types’ (however you personally identify, be you a planner, architect, engineer or designer) learn to adopt and use data as a core part of these future cities.