Students dissect smart cities to see what makes them work

Wed, 2015-06-10 06:00 -- Kevin Ebi

What began as a class project could provide inspiration for cities that are looking to become smarter. Four college students in California studied the state’s cities to see how smart they are -- and what the smartest cities have in common. The findings may be inspiring to other cities that are trying to figure out how to get started on their own smart city journey.

The students from University of Southern California Price School of Public Policy ranked cities based on a wide range of smart cities initiatives -- everything from their social media presence and open data efforts to the level of analytics they use.

The analysis, “Defining Digital Cities – How Technology is Changing the Future of Civic Governance,” was performed with the support of Council Associate Partner Civic Resource Group International. They also put the survey data on a map; you can see where the most advanced cities are and click to see what smart cities initiatives they employ.

Based on the ranking, cities were divided into three categories: entry-level, intermediate and advanced. Students evaluated what the cities in each grouping had in common.

Smart cities building blocks
Even so-called entry-level smart cities make extensive use of some of key technologies. In particular, social media, the cloud and public Wi-Fi seem to be gateways to more advanced initiatives.

The students found that nearly three-quarters of entry-level smart cities were on social media. Nearly two-thirds also engaged in some form of cloud computing and more than half also provided some public Wi-Fi. Naturally, those numbers were even higher in top-tier smart cities, but it shows even cities in the lowest tiers are making a substantial effort. In fact, a third even use mobile apps.

Smart cities embrace mobility
Almost every city in the advanced tier uses mobile apps -- and more than two-thirds of them developed and run their own apps. For advanced cities, apps are the most common smart city service, several percentage points ahead of public Wi-Fi and about 10 percentage points ahead of shared technology and open data portals.

Given how many people have smartphones -- two-thirds of Americans by some estimates -- mobile apps give cities a new way to reach their citizens and smart cities see that as such. The survey shows cities have almost a linear progression in adopting apps: one-third of entry-level cities use them and two-thirds of intermediate cities do.

Dedicated leadership
Leadership appears to be even more important than money when it comes to advancing smart cities initiatives. Nearly 40% of the cities that ranked in the advanced category actually report spending less than $50,000 a year on technology. And two of those minimal spenders actually ranked in the top 5 cities when it came to advanced technology use.

What those cities have, however, are technology officers. Overwhelmingly, cities that are considered smart city leaders have a dedicated leader on staff to help guide their efforts.

Opportunities to do better
Even among the high performers, obvious opportunities for improvement remain. One of the biggest areas for improvement is around open data.

While more than 80% of advanced cities have open data portals, only 65% have open data policies. These policies formally lay out practices for opening data and ensuring that it’s useful to citizens. The Council's Smart Cities Open Data Guide can be instrumental in helping craft an effective policy that delivers a strong return on your open data investment. Just over half of intermediate cities have such policies, although only a quarter of them actually have open data portals.


Kevin Ebi is a staff writer and social media coordinator for the Council. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.

Get the Smart Cities Open Data Guide …
Open data plays numerous roles in a smart city. It helps build transparency, allowing citizens to see exactly what the city is doing with their tax dollars. It also helps extend city services, allowing innovative developers to build apps and websites to allow the public to use services in new ways. The Council’s Smart Cities Open Data Guide captures lessons learned and best practices from cities that have launched open data initiatives, serving as a guide for cities that are just launching theirs. Download your free copy today.