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City Data: Open is the New Black

Conor Riffle's picture

While many may have heard the statistic “Cities are home to 50% of the world’s population”, few realize that it leads directly to a sobering and much less hyped conclusion:  we face an urgent need to understand how our cities work. 
 
Cities are now the defining human organizational structure on earth, but what do we know about these creations?  Sadly, not enough.  Which is why collecting and disseminating high-quality data about cities and how they function is of critical importance. 
 
Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) has recently taken a giant step in this direction by making our 2013 data set on over 100 large cities, their greenhouse gas emissions, and their actions on climate change available for free download in CSV files via our website. This effort—made possible by a grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies and our long-term partnership with C40—brings our voluminous data into the public domain for the first time.

CDP is far from the first organization to make its city data open and public.  City governments themselves have been leading the charge.  San Francisco’s data hub features data sets on everything from movie locations to public transport schedules and on-time records.  The City of Toronto publishes data sets going back to 2006.  And the White House recently launched its Climate Data Portal, which focuses on locally-relevant data. Open, it seems, is the new black.
 
There are several pressing reasons why data from cities should be free, shareable and easily accessible: 
 
We don’t know what we don’t know
The study of cities is still nascent and good data is scarce.  We’re just beginning to understand how cities work and where there are opportunities to implement good policy and new technology.   
 
Until recently, for example, many blamed mega-cities for their role in contributing to climate change. “Cities contribute 70% of greenhouse gas emissions,” runs one oft-quoted statistic.  Yet thanks to better data and the research it enables, researchers like former World Bank staff Dan Hoornweg have shown that cities are often unfairly blamed for their role in global greenhouse gas emissions. Large cities, with their lower per-capita emissions and other economies of scale, may be a much larger part of the solution to climate change than its source. 
 
Another example often in the media spotlight is the lack of financing available from donors for cities to begin reducing emissions and adapting to climate change.  CDP’s recent analysis, however, shows that cities have already started acting and that they are largely financing climate change projects out of their own municipal budgets.  Despite major efforts from the international development community to date, the 73 cities in our 2012 survey reported just 1% of projects were funded by international development banks. 
 
Support from donors and national governments is no doubt of critical importance for cities—especially if we hope to limit warming to 2 degrees—but our analysis shows the picture may be more complicated than we think.  Our understanding of cities is growing and evolving every day, and policy-makers and businesses at all levels need high-quality data to make high-quality decisions. 
 
Reducing the reporting burden
City governments today face a multitude of requests for their opinions, advice and data.  By freeing data, the individuals and organizations which make these requests can reduce duplication and efficiently use the data reported by cities. 
 
For example, researchers at Aalborg University in Denmark recently began investigating the linkages between adaptation and mitigation actions and priorities in large cities.  Instead of going directly to cities with a long list of questions, however, the researchers first downloaded CDP data from our 2012 open data pilot.  “Rather than start over,” the researchers write, “we can build upon the work that the CDP has already done.”  
 
Since we made available our 2012 data in a pilot last year, over 500 individuals and organizations have downloaded the data set.  The IPCC, the World Bank, and academic research organizations around the world now rely on timely data from CDP to inform their research on cities and climate change.  As the user base for CDP’s data set grows, its existence will help to reduce future reporting burden on city governments.   
 
Sharing ideas and best practices
Best practice sharing between cities is already common. But we are beginning to understand that the best way of sharing ideas may be to establish free flows of open data between interested parties.  The health care industry calls this practice “data liquidity,” and it’s an approach we should adopt as city practitioners.  Anybody interested in cities should be able to access relevant data and use it in their own efforts. 
 
In the first instance, improving data liquidity means freeing data sets from behind pay-walls and the walled gardens of city networks. But very quickly, we must all go higher-tech—structured data, APIs, and other developer-friendly approaches. 
 
For instance, each year CDP publishes a report that summarizes the data that is reported to CDP by cities, often including a number of best practices.  But many cities tell us that they want access to the raw data—in CDP’s case, on greenhouse gas emissions, emissions reduction activities, climate risks and more—so they can draw their own conclusions on issues that are relevant for their particular circumstances.  All cities that report to CDP now have access to the raw data set, as well as analytical tools to help them benchmark themselves and compare progress.   
 
It is not until we build up a large supply of reliable, open source data about cities that we will be able to fully understand how our cities work and how to maximize their role in protecting us from a changing climate.  CDP is proud to join forward-thinking organizations like the World Bank in making our data open to the public.  We hope our efforts will contribute meaningfully to the worldwide community of businesses, scholars, activists and political leaders who face the urgent task of making sense of our cities.
 
Download 2013 CDP Cities data here
 

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