Big Data: a Tool to Improve Local Governments

Aymen, September 30.

Nowadays, data is everywhere around us, from our Smartphone to our tablet, to that laptop or PC on our desks; data is pervasive and plentiful. Indeed, as reported by the Economist, “The world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data”. Big Data may create risks with respect to rights, as surveillance opportunities are increased, and the growth in e-waste creates environmental risk, but it also generates a wealth of opportunities.

Big Data can, for example, give the possibility for citizens to be informed about what their government are doing, and at the same time allow the government to be informed about the needs and desires of their citizens. It enables consequently greater transparency and accountability and creates an input into future planning.

As it is the case for central governments, local authorities also sit in the middle of a web of information; everything from social care for vulnerable children, waste collection, procurement, council tax collection to planning applications produces huge quantities of data. This data is sometimes garbled, hard to analyze or personal and sensitive, but it is potentially hugely beneficial in helping councils make services more targeted and effective, to allocate resources to where they will have the biggest impact. In a world of reducing budgets, local authorities have the opportunity to offer better and cheaper services by combining public and other external data sources with their own internal data.

There are a lot of examples of successful use of Big Data for better local governance around the world. A significant example being the South Korean city of Songdo, the world’s first smart city and largest private development in history. In this “Ubiquitous city,” data sensors continually collect information on the city’s flows of water, energy, and traffic for ongoing optimization. Another example being the X-Road system, the data exchange standard in the public sector of Estonia, which allows the country’s various public and private sector e-Service databases to link up and function in harmony.

Commonly, the use of Big Data to improve local governance is largely discussed in the Global North. However, local initiatives also started in countries like Tunisia. Al Bawsala ( the compass), a public policy NGO working to promote human rights, good governance, and accountability in Tunisia, used social media to inform and mobilize the public around the access to information law; which adopted in late 2016. In 2014, the NGO launched a project called Marsad Baladia (observatory of municipalities) to monitor the activities of local authorities.

In just three years, the project has collected data from municipal councils and made it accessible via a website. For 70% of the municipalities in Tunisia, the website has data on the members of the council, the municipality’s assets, the yearly budget, ongoing projects and a transparency index; and users can track what is happening in their municipalities

Thanks to data collection and compilation, the website gives the possibility to monitor the activity of municipalities through access to information and communication. The project also aims to narrow the gap between the municipality and the citizen by improving the understanding of the realities of local and municipal politics, and increasing participation in decision-making. In such case, the use of data has brought people closer to their local authorities by increasing the latter’s transparency and the former’s participation. It is the first step towards active public participation at the local level.

It is important however to remember that gathering data is not enough as it is not in and of itself useful, but using data analysis to test hypotheses or solve problems can ensure that value is created.

In this sense, creating a data-oriented culture through creating platforms for data and analysis helps improving decision and policy-making processes on one hand, and increases on the other hand citizens’ ability to better scrutinize their governments and hold them to account. Quoted in the book, “The silent Intelligence – the Internet of Things,” Assaf Biderman, the Associate Director of MIT’s Senseable City Lab, likens the use and reorganization of data within national or local governments to ancient Greek democracy. He suggests that “now we have a capacity to influence, design, make decisions and suggestions about life in the city by learning about how our city and our environment are managed”.


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