Why governing data is key for the future of cities

By Carlos Santiso, Director and Marcelo Facchina, Lead Smart Cities Specialist, Digital Innovation in Government Directorate, Development Bank of Latin America

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Technology is changing city dwellers lives, as well as how urban centres evolve to meet their needs. The pandemic has accelerated this transformation, and the digital transition has generated an explosion of data, especially in cities. In this context, the ability of local governments to manage urban problems will be paramount for the recovery, and the pandemic has helped us better understand the missing elements we need to govern cities effectively. For instance, the World Bank’s World Development Report of 2021 underscored that a data infrastructure policy is one of the building blocks of a good data governance framework, both to foster the local data economy and promote digital inclusion.  

It is inconceivable not to consider cities as an integral part of the solution to challenges like tackling social exclusion, improving public services and reducing insecurity, among others. A key issue that has become increasingly prominent in city agendas is the good governance of data; that is how data is handled and for what purpose, its quality and integrity, as well as the privacy and security concerns related to its collection and use. In other words, city governments need to preserve people’s trust in the way they handle data to improve lives.

A modern local government cannot be sustained without good data governance, secure data infrastructure, and digital talent to extract public value from data. Data policy must therefore act as an enabler of transformation strategies, defining the scope, direction, responsibilities and procedures for the effective and responsible use of data for more responsive and resilient cities.

At the national level, “delivery units” have gained relevance as instruments for managing change in governments and driving the effective implementation of strategic priorities. These management models led by central government have proven to be effective instruments for achieving government targets, priority goals and major projects.

The model is even being expanded to subnational governments, like in the case of Colombia. Municipalities interact directly with citizens in providing public services, and innovations like the “delivery units”, can help improve citizen satisfaction with government services. In a recent study, we show how Latin American cities, for example Recife and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, have leveraged these innovations in public management as a strategic planning tool, building on the pioneering experience of New York. Another interesting case is Buenos Aires, in Argentina, where systematic monitoring of government commitments by the Compliance Management Unit achieved a significant decrease in murder rates (43%) and road accidents (33%) between 2015 and 2019.

The pivotal role of new technologies and the strategic use of data by municipal governments can also improve delivery of services, making them more accessible, agile, efficient and less costly. In another recent study, we look at the case of 12 cities around the world and in the region, including Boston, Seoul, London, Buenos Aires, Medellin, Mexico and Recife that are seeking to strengthen their strategic management with more intensive use of data to better meet the growing expectations of their citizens.

For example, the city of Buenos Aires implemented a multi-pronged data strategy, including proactively opening up access to public data, georeferencing municipal public procurement, and implementing an AI-based chatbot to improve service to citizens. In Colombia, Bogotá created Ágata, a Data Analytics Agency, to leverage city data more effectively to develop public policies and provide public services that better address users’ needs. For Bogotá’s digital secretary Felipe Guzmán, “consolidating Bogotá as a smart territory implies having the necessary capabilities to manage, secure and leverage the data in the city.” These data units not only seek to leverage the data generated by cities, but also to gain a better understanding of people’s real problems.

The combination of data intelligence with strategic city management by central governments shows promising results. For example, the City of Los Angeles managed to reduce by about 80% the number of streets considered unclean with systematic monitoring of roads through the city’s geo-data portal. In San Francisco, residents have access to more than 80 dashboards reporting on municipal performance and can track whether the city’s goals in terms of public services are being met.

But perhaps the most important benefit of delivery units using data science is that they demonstrate that investing in digital innovation at the sub-national level is not only desirable, but essential. While some cities of North America and Europe are at an advanced stage, Latin America has yet to fully exploit the benefits of this data-driven management model.

Accelerating the digital transformation of local governments is also a policy tool to “reactivate local economies through entrepreneurship with business models based on data analytics,” according to Fernando de Pablo, director-general of Madrid’s digital office. For example, to invigorate its local govtech startups, the city of Córdoba in Argentina created a venture fund for the promotion of innovation and the data economy, propelled by the city’s lab, Corlab. This will be the region’s first municipal govtech fund.

Data governance and the ethical use of artificial intelligence are major challenges that cities face. This fuels the need for multilateral dialogue forums to share experiences, challenges and opportunities, such as Harvard University’s Data-Smart City Solutions, and the What Works Cities network created by Bloomberg Philanthropies for U.S. cities. Globally, initiatives such as the G20 Smart Cities Alliance of the World Economic Forum are supporting the creation of replicable and scalable data strategies and good practice exchange through ‘leading city’ models and regional smart city networks.

Their proximity to citizens makes municipalities ideal spaces to start using data to restore trust in governments, which has eroded in recent years with the increase in citizens’ expectations and the region’s persistent social malaise. For Sao Paulo’s digital transformation coordinator André Tomiato, “governments become more digital in response to people’s needs and as they seek to use data more broadly and more strategically.” Therefore, cities are essential to rebuilding the contract between citizens and institutions as the world recovers from Covid-19. A new social contract that must include a digital pact and promote data rights.