3 ways to turn your data into gold

data alchemy

As I glance out my window at the stimulus-funded construction project that will one day produce an underground rail system, I’m astounded to see city workers using paper documents to locate 100-year-old old sewer lines, water mains, and long-forgotten streetcar tracks. Imagine the impact if a page was missing, or if a blueprint was misplaced or unavailable. It goes beyond project delays, cost overruns, and the potential for a multi-year traffic jam. Lives are at stake. The value of the data on those pages is incalculable.

High-value data like that is everywhere in our cities. What if that static data could be transformed into things we all appreciate, like faster emergency services, fewer traffic jams, or tax incentives for small businesses? Cities around the world hold large caches of data that are tremendously valuable if they can just be put to use. The great news is that tools are available today to turn nearly anyone into a data alchemist who can transform data into gold. Here are three ways your city can make that happen.

1. Democratize your data.

When I hear “Big Data,” I think big diversity. Our cities capture data in a variety of formats, structures, and repositories. This diversity keeps the data locked down and mostly unusable except by statisticians or data scientists. Business Intelligence tools, like Power BI, level the playing field by providing a common view of data across different document types and formats. This democratization—of both the data and the tools used to view it—is the first step in transforming collected data into something useful.

2. Be a catalyst.

A cornerstone of open government is the publication of open data, and encouraging the entire community—citizens, businesses, entrepreneurs, city workers—to put it to work. The trick is to move beyond online repositories, which often resemble “buckets of bits,” and instead be a data catalyst that powers new applications, transforms business models, and creates a culture of innovation where a livable, sustainable city can thrive. A great example is the work of Beyond 2.0, an Ottawa-based project that delivers open, real-time transit data to its citizens via public displays and mobile apps. Imagine how great it is for shoppers in downtown Ottawa to know that their bus is 22 minutes away, giving them time to do a little more shopping or grab a cup of coffee. Ottawans love it, and so do local businesses.

3. Hug a hacker.

Hackfests, appathons, and app contests generate whirlwinds of activity as citizens harness their talents for coding and problem-solving. The ideas that sprout up are truly impressive. Unfortunately, many apps never evolve beyond the idea phase. To harness the value of your city’s data, take the long view at your next appathon. Build sustainability into the program by making it an annual event, tying it to a local festival, rewarding winners with prize money, spotlighting apps on your city website, or connecting coders with local businesses. Get creative. Provide incentives so contestants will want to create version 2.0, either for your city or other municipalities that need a great app. Anything you can do to help hackathon contestants solve support, privacy, security, and accessibility challenges will remove barriers and help their brilliant ideas turn into economy-driving apps.

City workers, citizens, businesses, visitors, and city leaders all want the same thing:  a smart, sustainable city that’s a great place to live, work, and play. You’re sitting on the goldmine that can make it happen. The deeper you dig, the more opportunities you’ll find to become a data alchemist who can actually turn data into economic gold.

Have a comment or opinion on this post? Let me know @Microsoft_Gov. Or e-mail us at ongovernment@microsoft.com.

John Weigelt
National Technology Officer, Microsoft Canada