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A Look At Smart City Dashboards

As with companies, data is the holy grail for cities because it leads to efficiency in providing services and optimal allocation of resources. It also brings transparency to a government’s functioning through city dashboards, which share critical data related to city services with citizens.

Major metropolitan areas around the world have developed dashboards to share data with ordinary citizens. I caught up with Rob Kitchin, who helped design and implement Dublin’s dashboard, recently to know more about the process and his views on city data.

Explaining the rationale behind the Dublin Dashboard, Kitchin said the project was mainly conceived to create a culture of evidence-based decision making in Dublin's city politics. “Ireland doesn’t have a long tradition of evidence-based decision making,” he said. “In the past, decisions have mostly been taken on gut instinct and anecdotal evidence here.” Even as they developed the Dublin  dashboard, Kitchin and his team constantly negotiated the parameters of their operations and data with city officials. For example, the Dublin dashboard uses open data but it doesn’t make data open. “We do use the dashboard to try and campaign for open data,” said Kitchin.   

To that end, there are two ways in which the dashboard’s data can be used. The first one is contextual, in which the data is combined with other formats and types to address particular operational issues. The second use of a city dashboard’s data is performance-related, in which the government uses data primarily to determine performance targets for its officials.

The Dublin Dashboard is a contextual dashboard. “It’s just one form of knowledge, so we are not using it in a disciplinary or control-oriented way,” he says, adding that this approach to data is mostly prevalent across Europe. The American approach, on the other hand, incorporates Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and runs cities like organizations with purpose-built operations rooms, where city mayors and different department heads confer on their performance numbers on a weekly basis.

Kitchin has written about and extensively discussed his experience creating the Dublin Dashboard. While creating it, Kitchin and his team combined a technical stack, consisting of technologies used for the dashboard, with a contextual stack, which defined socio-economic parameters for the data. As Kitchin explains it, all technical development within smart cities occurs within a context. “Hardware, software, sensors - all of them link together to create a socio-technical entity,” he says. According to him, the technical stack is shaped by decisions relating to multiple fields, such as finance and governance, and relationships between different actors in city politics. This approach ensures that all entities, whether it is private developers or technology firms, have to comply with existing regulation pertaining to city development.   

While that may sound like a holistic approach in theory, its practical implementation does not always ensure equitable development for the entire city. I have written previously about this topic and highlighted Rio De Janeiro’s failed attempt to bring the benefits of a smart city to low-income neighborhoods.

A similar dynamic seems to have played out in Dublin. According to Kitchin, most smart city technology in Dublin is being deployed in the city center and not in areas of public housing and deprivation. “Typically, it is being implemented in areas that have a more global profile and areas of business development within the city,” he says. He says most smart city developments across the world cater to an affluent or emerging middle class.   

In turn, this results in comprising of data. Kitchin has written and discussed his experience developing dashboards extensively. “Dashboards provide oligoptic views of the world: views from certain vantage points, using particular tools, rather than an all-seeing view...They decontextualize a city from its history, its political economy, the wider set of social, economic and environmental relations. In doing so...dashboards suggest that a city is simply the sum of its measures and can be known, planned and controlled through data processes and algorithms alone” he wrote in a paper.

I asked him to provide me with a practical example from his experience.

Kitchin told me that data only tells part of the story of the housing crisis in Ireland. “The number of housing completions or new developments doesn’t tell you much about the politics behind the crisis or the number of homeless people or what the experience of homeless is like,” he said. Similarly, R&D spend for a company is not necessarily representative of innovation within a city. “Your research spend could be a dodge for tax,” he says, adding that data doesn’t tell you much in terms of how the system is actually working. “It can tell you the outcomes of what a system is doing but not necessarily the process,” he said.

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