Tuesday 12 February 2019 8:18 am

How data will power the cities of tomorrow

By 2050, it is estimated that 68 per cent of the global population will live in cities – an influx of over 2.5bn.

With that many people living in urban areas, it is clear that making cities work better is key to creating a safer, more sustainable world.

Local issues are now global issues, and cities must lead the way in addressing some of the world’s most pressing challenges: climate change, energy efficiency, and urban mobility.

The use and control of data is one of the key drivers future progress. It is the founding block for building many of the solutions that city leaders look to in order to tackle these issues.

However, while data may hold the answers, we must ensure that we get the ethics right. Data is a hugely personal issue, and it is not clear whether people yet truly understand the value of their information enough to make informed choices.

Heated debates, scandals, and cyber breaches have perpetuated a cloud of misinformation and fear. But in order to confront the challenges facing the cities of today and tomorrow, we must learn to love our data – and that means improving understanding around data use.

Take Helsinki. Our ability to run the city, offer public services, and improve efficiency rests on developing trust in governance, transparency, consistency, and in safeguarding the uses of data. Many people are happy to trust Facebook or Instagram with information on their relationships, preferences and movements, but are doubtful about the level of security a city can provide.

To counter this, Helsinki is developing a system that puts engagement with the city firmly in control of the data owner – the citizen.

Helsinki’s relatively high levels of trust in data are the result of many years of effort in championing both transparency and functionality. People need to feel safe that their data will be used securely and ethically, and to see first-hand how it can improve their day-to-day lives so they understand its benefits.

We have released more data than almost any other city in the world, published in formats that make it easy for software developers, researchers and others to analyse or turn it into apps that make life easier: maps of traffic noise levels, tracking air quality, up-to-date locations of snowplows, and real-time decisions made at city hall.

Like London, we have one of the world’s most progressive city 3D models to help us adapt to climate change, improve energy efficiency, and prepare for growth in terms of urban planning.

As a city, Helsinki looks to the private sector for the latest innovations in data use, and this is not a one-way street – we also welcome companies which want to use the city and its data as a “test bed”. As I see it, the mutual flow of information and ideas is essential in creating a sustainable platform of services and products in the long term. And it has made us one of the most connected startup hubs in the world.

Helsinki’s mission is to be the most functional city in the world. We are moving towards a society that is better at predicting different service and information needs, serving our residents in a more proactive and personalised way. This is dependent on spurring systemic change where people are educated about data and able to make informed choices.

The best foundation is a society based on trust, where transparency and access to knowledge is free and available to all equally.

We look forward to working with London on ethical data use and the data-based solutions that lead to more sustainable, smarter cities.


City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.