Digital transformation

Why smart cities need data-driven leaders

Aug 13, 2018

As urban population growth outpaces rural development, cities across the globe continue to expand — in fact, the UN estimates that over 50% of the world’s population currently lives in cities with the figure expected to reach 68% by 2050.

This concentration of people in urban areas requires smarter, forward-looking planning that avoids overcrowding and ensures sustainable urban growth. Tackling the key challenges of an expanding metropolis — such as ensuring safety, facilitating mobility and increasing economic efficiency — hinges on the ability to make data-driven decisions to deliver better outcomes and keep cities liveable.

Dr Amen Ra Mashariki, Esri’s urban analytics lead and New York City’s former chief analytics officer and Director of the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics (MODA) refers to this approach in his recent blog.

By analysing data, the City of New York put an end to an outbreak of Legionnaires disease, protected tenants from discrimination and corrected the unjustified issuing of traffic tickets. While data was central to these achievements, it was not the only factor.

To stop the spread of the disease, the cooling towers that were transmitting it had to be located and inspected. To put an end to discrimination, it was necessary to understand where it was happening.

The data on its own didn’t make sense; context was crucial, and, in this case, location information provided the necessary context.


Former Governor of Maryland and Mayor of Baltimore, and a leading light in the smart cities space, Martin O’Malley says: “We’re seeing typical systems of government built on a hierarchy of command-and-control give way to technology-driven distributed government platforms with data at their core.”

It’s a process that can be slow to take hold, but the more city leaders understand the benefits of a data-driven culture and see a smart city evolve, the more inclined they will be to get on board.

This transformative data-driven culture leverages tools that are no longer the sole domain of large and highly-funded organisations. Today’s technology provides an easy, small-scale entry point for all city administrations, that can be scaled as needs evolve.

We’re already seeing successful applications of data-driven policy-making around the world and increased levels of community engagement.


Let’s look at mobility in cities, for example. Traffic congestion is one the largest problems negatively impacting a city’s productivity and economic growth, driving city authorities to explore ways to gather and use data to alleviate the impact.

For example, Boston established a data-sharing partnership with Waze to update commuters on the status of traffic along different routes, helping them avoid being stuck in traffic for hours. 

Another example comes from Cebu City in the Philippines, where the Open Traffic platform optimises the timings of traffic signals during peak hours using GPS data from drivers’ smartphones, managing traffic flows to keep the city moving.

When it comes to ensuring safety in growing cities, Rio de Janeiro’s CrimeRadar is breaking new grounds as the world’s first public-facing crime forecasting platform. Using machine learning, CrimeRadar assessed more than 14 million crime events between 2010 and 2017 to develop a score for crime risks every six hours for every 250 square meters. This gives citizens the ability to make decisions about their daily routines based on real crime risks.

City leaders driving a smart city strategy will leverage data, digital technologies and engage with their community to deliver liveable and sustainable cities that can thrive – and that’s something any city administration can now do, regardless of its size.

For advice on building a smart city and engaging with your community, call us on 1800 870 750 or send us an email.

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