Living in a city in the 21st century is a truly remarkable experience. Without exaggeration, it presents an historic opportunity.
Humankind has been on the planet for about 160,000 years; cities have existed for, say, 6,000 years; we have used the internet for barely 50 years. We do indeed live in interesting times – at a singular juncture in human history and technological development.
As a result, our generation of city-dwellers has unprecedented opportunities to shape the way we live our lives, both individually and collectively.
There’s a lot at stake. By 2050, 70 per cent of the world’s population will live in cities. In the digital era, the world will be characterised more by networks of networked cities than by the current patchwork of nation states.
The United Kingdom’s first Open-data Cities Conference, to be held in association with Kasabi, will address profound questions now facing cities and citizens.
What do we mean by a “networked” city? And how do we ensure UK cities are at the forefront of this global transformation? How do we use emerging technology to create the future we want, rather than wait passively for “The Next Big Thing” and a take-it-or-leave-it future that continually descends on us, apparently out of thin air?
Let’s take for granted that Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and their ilk are going to be a large part of the future for some time to come.
Online social networks are the arteries and veins of a world that appears to be getting smaller all the time. In reality, of course, it isn’t the world that is getting smaller; it is the networks that are getting bigger and more richly complex.
Crucially, the lifeblood that flows through our increasingly-networked world is data. In a digital world, data is everywhere. It defines, describes and determines the world we live in. Usually, you can’t see it; you definitely can’t touch it. But data is literally the “stuff” of everyday life.
Occasionally, it is openly and freely accessible; mostly, it is locked away in databases controlled by big business or big government.
We are not talking about personal data relating to identifiable individuals. We are talking about the data that is the “straw” that creates the bricks, which build the walls of the palaces and mansions of the future – the architects of which are still in our schools and universities.
It is this rising generation who will be the innovators, the creators of data-driven applications and services – as yet unimaginable – that will make communities more prosperous, more inclusive, and more democratic.
Today, when we talk of communities, we often refer to communities of practice, communities of interest, and of purpose.
Too rarely, do we recognize explicitly the persistent value generated by communities of place: the physical intersection between the global and the local; the neighbourhoods where even today most of us work, shop, enjoy leisure and seek pleasure; where we feel at home, where whatever happens is happening in our “backyard”, wherever the mundane is significant.
A lot of progress has already been made in opening up data. Countries around the world are following the lead of the United Kingdom, with data.gov.uk, and the United States, with data.gov.
At the local level, progress is inevitably much more fragmentary. The potential, however, is even greater; the value is more concrete. The emergence of cities that are self-consciously “open-data cities”, in North America and beyond, heralds what could ultimately result in a fundamental re-negotiation of the relationship between individuals, the citizenry, and the state.
In the United Kingdom, with its 433 local authorities and myriad other publicly-funded democratic institutions, progress towards becoming open-data organizations is not straightforwardly linear. It requires organisational transformation, with clear leadership, in a spirit of collaborative co-production.
The Open-data Cities Conference – to be held on Friday, April 20, at Brighton Dome Corn Exchange – will bring together protagonists from some of our biggest cities, including decision-makers from the public sector and public services, executives from media and cultural institutions, and leaders from the voluntary sector and civil society.
It will also seek to attract business people, entrepreneurs, and bureaucrats. It will not limit itself to evangelists preaching to the converted. In open-data cities, we really are all in it together.
The civic data we are talking about has greatest value when it is free, when it’s available for the common good. It’s about schools, catchment areas, and property prices; it’s about bus times and bus-stops, taxi ranks, car parks, and traffic congestion; it’s about energy use, CO2 emissions, and carbon footprints.
Fundamentally, though, it’s not about the data. Nor about the technology. It’s about meeting the needs of citizens, offering solutions to problems, and providing answers to questions. An open-data city is a citizen-centred community.
Just as nobody could have predicted what could have been achieved in the first 50 years of the internet, what could be built with HTML and hypertext, so nobody can foresee what will result from open data, linked data, and the new semantic web technologies.
The opportunities are endless, especially in cities. One thing, however, is certain: after 160,000 years, we’re only just beginning.
Greg Hadfield, a former Fleet Street journalist and internet entrepreneur, is organizer of the UK’s first Open-data Cities Conference at Brighton Dome Corn Exchange on Friday, April 20 2012. Early Bird tickets are on sale now at £100.