Need a cure for what ails your city? Data is the best medicine

Wed, 2015-11-04 06:00 -- Kevin Ebi

Poverty. Infectious disease outbreaks. Preparations for natural disasters. All are big problems that may not seem to have answers.

But a new effort helps to show governments of all levels that they may already have the answers. The key is to pull those answers out of data.

Council Lead Partners IBM and MasterCard are among the initial champions behind the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data. It is also backed by the United Nations as well as the United States, United Kingdom, France, Italy, Kenya, Mexico, Morocco, the Philippines and Senegal.

“By working together we can close critical data gaps to ensure effective monitoring and accelerate local efforts to achieve the sustainable development goals,” said United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Eliminating gaps in data
The people behind the effort point out that there is much that we do not know. For example, the number of people in extreme poverty may be under counted by 25%. And in sub-Saharan Africa, where much of that poverty is concentrated, 13 countries do not track income trends. As a result, it’s impossible to say if initiatives are helping or even hurting. Without that knowledge, it’s impossible to devise an effective strategy.

Public health is another area with extreme data gaps. The number women who die during childbirth isn’t counted — it’s estimated. And some believe that even the best estimates may be 40% low.

Progress toward sustainability goals
Already, the champions are involved in more than 120 projects worldwide to collect better and more complete data and do a better job of analyzing it. Data will be used to help solve 17 sustainable development goals, including ending poverty and hunger, promoting good health and education, clean water and energy, and reducing inequality. The project involves using data for everything from measurement and accountability to analytics and solution strategy.

Supporters say there’s no doubt the investment is worth it. While it could cost $1 billion over the next 15 years to collect and use data to meet the United Nations’ sustainability goals, more than one thousand times that much is lost through corruption — corruption that should be exposed through better data collection.

Data improves food safety in Chicago
While the new initiative is worldwide, there are a number of cities that have undertaken their own initiatives that are delivering strong returns to public health and safety.

One example is Chicago, which is now using predictive analytics to help its food inspectors to be more effective. Since launching the effort, it says it’s finding critical safety violations a week earlier than it would have.

The project worked by developing an understanding of the establishments that are most likely to have critical violations. That prioritization helps inspectors focus first on areas where they will have the biggest impact. The result is that food is safer to eat.

Get the Smart Cities Open Data Guide …
The Council's Smart Cities Open Data Guide captures lessons learned and best practices to provide city leaders and staff a starting point to chart their own open data initiatives. It’s a free resource for members of the Smart Cities Council. Join now and download your copy of the Smart Cities Open Data Guide today.