The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
April 17, 2014

How data can help us meet global needs for public services

April 17, 2014

As the global population continues to rapidly urbanize, government, enterprises, and residents are beginning to use data more regularly to tackle pressing urban challenges. Embracing data can help to develop and eventually achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, which will succeed the Millennium Development Goals when they expire in 2015.

That’s why I was heartened to see such emphasis on the rigorous and creative use of data at last week’s World Urban Forum (WUF) in Medellin, Colombia. Each year, the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) convenes WUF to discuss issues facing cities and communities around the world. This year’s forum focused on “Urban Equity in Development – Cities for Life.”

As a speaker on WUF’s Basic Services: Local Businesses For Equitable Cities dialogue, I had the chance to discuss how data can empower the private sector to help improve basic services and infrastructure in quickly growing cities around the world.

By making data more available and accessible, governments at various levels can highlight market opportunities for services with social benefits

Even in extremely low-income areas, there is an economy, but residents usually pay too much and get too little. If there were better information about the needs and purchasing power of these communities, it could prompt better businesses to bring in higher-quality services to meet the demand.

For example, in the United States, NGOs and the government documented neighborhoods where people had limited access to fresh foods. Research revealed the SNAP benefits that poor residents received were frequently spent outside the neighborhood or at fast food providers.

Having that information at hand can allow community development financial institutions to lend capital to bring in stores that offer fresh food to poor communities. Increased competition improves the quality of service. Investors are better able to lend when they have evidence of aggregate purchasing power, even if each consumer has only a few dollars to spend.

Residents can collect data on their own communities that benefit government and private service providers

It is difficult for the public or private sector to provide services to communities in which existing amenities, challenges, and infrastructure are not well documented. Citizen-generated information can supply the data needed to inform service provision and investment decisions.

In Solo City, Indonesia, the nonprofit Solo Kota Kita asks local leaders to submit basic information about their communities: number of households, water use, school attendance, land tenure, and more.

The data are turned into a Mini Atlas, a neighborhood profile accessible to all citizens. With assistance from USAID, UN-Habitat, and the Ford Foundation, the city government sponsors this program  and uses the data to support policy design and public projects.

Entrepreneurs can support basic public services with creative data collection methods

Cell phones and other basic information technology can generate information that both government and the private sector can use to target basic services where needed and deliver them more efficiently.

I recently learned about NextDrop, a business in the southern state of Karnataka in India. There, people used to sit around waiting for the unpredictable moment when water services would flow. Now citizens pay a small fee to receive text messages when water will be switched on, so they can be ready to collect water to meet their immediate needs.

In another example, data collected by a company called ShotSpotter could have application in cities around the world. ShotSpotter uses sensors to gather information about gunshots in various cities in the United States to aid policing and help decisionmakers develop crime-fighting strategies. Researchers with the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center are also using this data to help improve the quality of policing in urban neighborhoods.

Principles for data and service delivery

These are just some of hundreds of examples of how public or citizen data can strengthen government and private sector service delivery. But whether government is a data provider or user, it has a core responsibility to embrace the power of data to improve lives of residents and make cities more equitable. I believe governments must establish:

  • an open data culture,
  • a respect for evidence-based policy,
  • a norm of openness and transparency, and
  • a system of accountability to ensure that open data leads not merely to new business opportunities, but to improvement in the services and opportunities available to citizens.

No matter who collects and provides the data, these principles facilitate the spread of information—information that will improve private and public provision of services and citizens’ basic quality of life.

As the international community turns its attention to the creation of the Sustainable Development Goals, it must embrace the growing capacity for data collection and take advantage of the opportunities it presents.

Photo by the Urban Institute's Sharon Carney, of Sarah Rosen Wartell at the World Urban Forum.

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