How Can Chennai Listen Better to Data? A Case for Putting Data to Work in Cities

How Can Chennai Listen Better to Data? A Case for Putting Data to Work in Cities

During a recent brainstorming exercise on ‘designing interventions to improve the status of Solid Waste Management’ in a pilot ward in a city near Chennai, we came across an interesting array of data on a range of parameters starting from the type of vehicles available for garbage collection and transportation, amount of money spent on fuel per day, number of houses covered in one trip etc… All this crammed into a little log book that sanitary inspectors maintain.

On a larger scale, a municipal governing body like the Corporation of Chennai generates data everyday on an assortment of parameters starting from the number of birth and death certificates issued online, number of grievances registered through the helpline, types of grievances and areas facing these civic issues etc.

Cities generate more data today than they ever have and with the onset of e-governance and new forms of digital engagement with citizens, this quantum is only set to grow. Interestingly a lot more of this data is generated automatically and is moving into the digital space- providing what we have increasingly come to call ‘Push Data’.

Just imagine what it would be like if Chennai could listen to its data

Take for example the range of data collected in the ticketing machines that MTC bus conductors use to issue your tickets. The number of passengers boarding the bus as well as the area and time of boarding are primary parameters on which data is collected. The time difference between the first ticket issued at Stop A vs the first ticket issued at Stop B gives you information on the actual time taken to commute. Aggregating this information across buses plying on a particular route at various time points will give one a good sense of the passenger traffic and the congestion points across those routes.

This is just one instance that displays the potential that good data has, in fundamentally changing the way cities operate. In addition to building efficiencies in the system, a transparent data sharing policy enables cities to create a collaborative environment where citizens can play a powerful role in evolving solutions to the city’s problems.

Chennai needs to do three things to effectively use existing data and/or generate useful ‘new data’.

1. Create and strengthen open data policy and practices:

The concept of an ‘open source’ city has captured the imagination of several cities around the world. An ‘Open Source’ city allows for a system of co-generation and management of data and makes all of this available in the public domain. Creating an open data portal is the first step in this direction. While a wealth of city public data exists, it is barely accessible; making the collection of data in itself a rather Sisyphean task. If one could simple systematically integrate the information that is getting generated and make them available to the public at large in user-friendly formats, it could form a fairly strong communication channel between the government and the city’s residents.

2. Invest in creating more reliable ‘Push Data’:

Data is of no use without credibility. We know that data can be inexact and sometimes unreliable. But when data is reliable and thoughtfully organized it could make a powerful influence in decision making and implementation. Creating reliable data requires investment in the creation of applications that in a timely, reliable and affordable manner generate data and feed it into the central data portal. ‘Push data’ marks a clear shift away from data as reported by city managers towards crowd-sourcing data from citizens and installing hardware and software equipment to enable more accurate monitoring and recording of information.

Crowd-sourcing information on the status of public toilets through mobile-apps and establishing water quality monitors at the bulk supply point are common examples of ‘push data’.

3. Institutionalize a culture of collaborative and data-based decision making:

If the Open data portal creates more trouble than solutions, it is unlikely to survive beyond the prototype stage or even see the light of day. This is where app developers and data scientists have to think creatively about ways in which citizens can co-create solutions with the city. An empowered and responsible citizenry plays an extremely critical role in making cities work and sustaining a culture of open data.

Decision support tools are a smart way of simplifying the problem for cities. If a decision support tool can establish low-resistance and affordable pathways to resolve problems, the data portal can evolve into more than just an information tool and incentivize city managers to use the system.

As Chennai gears up to become a part of India’s smart city initiative, listening to existing data and putting it to better use, and simultaneously creating data sourcing mechanisms that will capture reliable data will pave the way for a smarter, sustainable and more resilient Chennai.


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Deepa Karthykeyan
Deepa is a co-founder & director at Athena. In addition to business development, Deepa works closely with governments and foundations to provide advisory support on urban sanitation and finance.