Follow Datanami:
September 12, 2014

LA Data: Cities Ponder Responsible Use of Big Data

Given its traffic, sprawl and glitz, Los Angeles has to be one of the great data-generating cities on Earth. In response, Mayor Eric Garcetti has appointed the City of Angels’ first “chief data officer” tasked with overseeing its new open data portal.

Ex-Google strategist Abhi Nemani, the city’s new data czar, will work with municipal agencies to collect and analyze data ranging from crime to building inspections to air quality.

Nemani assumed his new post on Sept. 2 and works with LA’s chief technology officer, Steve Reneker. Nemani previously served as executive director of Code for America, a San Francisco-based group that develops software tools for local governments.

Many financial institutions, healthcare providers and tech companies have added chief data officers in recent years. Now, cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco are reorganizing municipal government operations to leverage big data. Los Angeles County has its own chief data officer, Ali Farahani, who was among the speakers at a Chief Data Officer Summit in San Francisco in May.

Diana Anderson, chief data officer for the State of Colorado, told the summit, “The management and analytics of data has become more visible and crucial to both the private and public enterprise.”

Big data companies like IBM, Cloudera and MapR have been courting city, county and state governments where budget constraints often driven by shrinking tax bases are forcing planners do more with less.

Therefore, urban data is increasingly seen by government officials as an asset that can be used to run their jurisdictions more efficiently while improving the quality of life. That can sometimes translate into increased economic development and a broadening of municipal or state tax bases.

The challenge for big data companies is coming up with data analytics and other tools that deliver a quick return on investment. Smart city critics such as “urbanist” Adam Greenfield have argued that, among other things, the proliferation of networked information technologies like sensors in cities and the vast amounts of data they generate may have negative consequences.

For example, Greenfield warns that cities could end up ceding control of government functions to outside technology companies that build and deploy “smart city” technologies.

Hence, local and state official are looking for ways to get a handle on big data without giving away the store to large companies with separate agendas.

Meanwhile, the group LSE Cities (launched by the London School of Economics) has convened panels of urban experts to consider issues like how and by whom urban data should be collected in cities and to what uses it should be put.

“Who are the parties responsible for gathering the data, and what criteria do they use for the selection and representation of information they feel to be salient?” the group asked at a recent conclave of data experts from New York, Los Angeles and large European cities.

Another issue tackled by the panel focused on data visualization and mapping practices. For example, the urban experts were tasked with answering the question: “What domains of urban life seem to lend themselves most readily to intervention via participatory mapping or data visualization?”

Some of the answers to those questions are coming as more large cities embrace big data analytics.

Recent items:

Big Data Helps Drive Transportation Planning

EScience and a Tale of Two Cities