Cities & Big Data

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John Tolva & DJ Elukka DJ’ing in Mbar, Club Chicago.

We were glad to host John Tolva in Helsinki a few weeks back. He visited us as a guest of “Welcome to Helsinki” program of the City of Helsinki. The program was PACKED, with meetings with both nerds and civil servants, a DJ gig in Club Chicago in Mbar, barbecue in our house and of course Vappu, the eve of the first of May mayhem.

One of the buzzes of the day is Big Data. John should know a thing or two about it: he is the president of Positive Energy Practice, former CEO of the City of Chicago, and one of the creators of City Forward, the city data visualisation & analysis tool by IBM.

John discusses big data & cities in the recent interview in NewCity Design (and in his blog Ascent Stage). The “rise of data” in cities  is caused by two factors; first, the fact that even though cities have always produced lots of data, only now we have the tools to collect and analyse really large datasets; and second, that cities are now opening the data for external use, creating opportunities for innovative use of data, new product, business intelligence, transparency and in general better understanding of the city.

It’s a great vision. But let’s compare cities to two other sectors benefiting from big data. The impact of data has been most staggering in the finance sector. The combination of big data, super fast data analysis and automated trading tools have created completely new business sectors worth thousands of billions (we can – and should – of course debate which real value those have brought to the society). The other sector, with much more concrete positive outcomes, is medicine, where big data is changing both diagnosis and treatment processes.

However, the worlds of finance and medicine data are (almost) globally harmonised. That is not the case with cities. One-city big data is not all that big. This is be the key challenge of cities: how & when can they jointly create the global city big data ecosystem? The cities of the world is a big Babel of incompatible processes, data and interfaces. Harmonising that will need lots of footwork, and city2city collaboration. One city for all, all for one.