Data and the City: New report on how public data is fostering civic engagement in urban regions

Report by Jonathan Gray and Danny Lämmerhirt: “…demonstrates how public data infrastructures create new kinds of relationships and public spaces between public institutions, civil society groups, and citizens.

In contrast to more supply-oriented ideas around opening (government) data, we argue that data infrastructures are not a mere “raw” resource that can be exploited. Instead they are best conceived as a lively network or ecosystem in which publics creatively use city data to engage with urban institutions.

We intend to spark imagination and conversation about the role that public data infrastructures may play in civic life – not just as neutral instruments for creating knowledge, but also as devices to organise publics and evidence around urban issues; creating shared spaces for public participation and deliberation around official processes and institutions; and securing progress around major social, economic and environmental challenges that cities face.

Our report describes six case studies from cities around the world to demonstrate civil society’s vast action repertoire to engage with urban data infrastructures. One case study demonstrates how a British civil society organisation gathered budget data through freedom of information requests from municipal government. This information was fed into an open database and made accessible to finance experts and scholars in order to allow them to run a “public debt audit”. This audit enabled government officials and the larger public to debate the extent of public debt in British cities and to uncover how a lack of public scrutiny increased profits of financial institutes while putting a strain on the public purse….

In detail, civic actors can engage with data infrastructures to:

  • Identify spaces for intervention. Having cadastral data at hand helped civic actors to identify vacant publicly-owned land, to highlight possibilities for re-using it and to foster community building in neighbourhoods around its re-use.
  • Open spaces for accountability. Using government’s own accounting measurements may provide civil society with evaluation criteria for the effectiveness of public sector programs. Civil society actors may develop a ‘common ground’ or ‘common language’ for engaging with institutions around the issues that they care about.
  • Enable scrutiny of official processes, institutional mechanisms and their effects. By opening public loan data, civil society was able to identify how decentralised fiscal audit mechanisms may have negative effects on public debt.
  • Change the way an issue is framed or perceived. By using aggregated, anonymized data about home addresses of inmates, scholars could shift focus from crime location to the origin of an offender – which helped to address social re-entry programs more effectively.
  • Mobilise community engagement and civic activism. Including facilitating the assembly and organisation of publics around issues….

You can find the full report here.”