Cities are constantly gathering and producing immense amounts of useful information. The Helsinki Region Infoshare service opens that data for everyone, and gives rise to apps and services that make life better.
Once upon a time there was a king, who ordered his subjects to gather all possible information about his kingdom: what was the weather like at 5.30 in the mornings? How often did people travel between villages, and how long did the journey take? He also wanted to know what diseases existed in different parts of the village, and which grains were farmed on each strip of land.
“What will the king do with all this information?” his subjects wondered. The truth was: nothing. He stored all the information in a large vault in his castle. The end.
Fortunately in today’s world, fact is more magical than fiction: Helsinki, Vantaa, Espoo and Kauniainen do collect all the possible information, but unlike the king of the story, they make most of this information openly accessible to anyone.
A recipient of multiple international awards, the Helsinki Region Infoshare service (HRI) already contains over 1200 open statistics and other datasets. More keeps coming as cities collect and produce information. Among other things, the service contains all the concerts of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra since 1882, the investments of the city of Vantaa, and the food establishments in Helsinki provided by the City of Helsinki Environment Centre. Anyone can download the data from the HRI website and use it to their liking. The cities provide this valuable information to everyone because it benefits all.
Open data gives rise to services and apps
Just five years ago cities functioned like the king gathering all the data for itself. They collected huge amounts of information on the city and its citizens, which was utilized only by civil servants in decision making and designing services. If statistics indicate that some service – say a branch library – is used more than expected, it is easier to oppose its termination.
The city itself does utilize the data it collects and creates services for its citizens from it, but sometimes someone else can do it better. Now more people have that opportunity.
New ideas are more likely to be born if thousands of citizens are picking apart the data in addition to the city’s information service employees. There is power in the masses.
Helsinki, Vantaa, Espoo and Kauniainen started opening up their data in 2011 and it has already led to the development of several services and apps that ease the life of citizens. After a stormy winter night, it is a relief to be able to follow the real-time movement of snowploughs on your phone. In the same manner, you can check whether your bus is on time: is it time for a sprint or a relaxed stroll? One service provides lots of useful information pertaining to your neighbourhood.
Good city design involves understanding that the users – its citizens – know best what they need.
The HRI service, which has hundreds of different statistics, resembles a big box full of Legos. That is why it is no wonder that the city of Vantaa built a model Vantaa in the Minecraft video game – which is like a digital Lego box – using the city’s elevation model, different geographic information datasets, and the National Land Survey’s Topographic database.
Transparent decision making
Creating neat apps to ease the life of urban citizens is not the only aim behind opening up data (although successful apps can bring in tax income for the city). It also serves another important purpose: it makes decision making transparent and thus improves democracy.
“Making lots of our city purchase data public opened up a new view for citizens into city administration, and it increases people's trust toward the city and its officials,” says project manager of Helsinki City Urban Facts Tanja Lahti, who is in charge of the HRI service.
The city has estimated that just opening up the data has resulted in 1–2 percent savings, because projects are now undertaken with more background knowledge.
“Publishing all receipts from public purchases has caused officials to shape up”, says Lahti.
But what if someone abuses open data? The fear officials might be feeling is understandable, since they cannot know beforehand how the information is going to be used. The media has used it to scrutinize the cities’ decision-making in a multitude of stories. However, not a single case of misuse has been reported. And if someone wishes to misinterpret statistics, fortunately the data is open, so it is easy to correct.
Being this open means a big shift in attitudes in the city administration. Tanja Lahti has a smart reply for those city officials having mixed feelings about openness: the information belongs to the citizens.
Key lesson: Opening up information ensures the data will be used more and in better ways. It builds trust between citizens and city administration, and opens up new possibilities for people to participate in developing their city, even with commercial services.