Preparing cities for a data-driven future

Christina Franken
5 min readJan 31, 2017


This article first appeared in Public Sector Digest.

Technology companies have been leading the way in defining their vision of what Smart Cities of the future should look like. By deploying the latest tech at a large scale in new developments, dystopian novels appear to be at the brink of becoming reality.

This sensor-laden, tech-first approach is fit to boost the portfolios of tech companies, but seems to forget the centerpiece of what makes a city a city — its people. The stark contrast between hyper-smart developments and our organically grown cities is puzzling.

“We need to empower ourselves to build future cities organically, from the bottom up, and do it in time to save ourselves from climate change” summarizes Anthony Townsend in his book Smart Cities.

“We need to empower ourselves to build future cities organically, from the bottom up, and do it in time to save ourselves from climate change”

Mapbox is an open source tech company that seems to be on the right track. The startup builds maps & mapping tools on top of OpenStreetMap (OSM), a free, crowdsourced map of the world with more than 2 million registered contributors. As a commercial user, Mapbox contributes to the global OSM community by improving OpenStreetMap with the same technology they build to offer the best mapping experience to commercial customers around the globe.

Mapbox supports the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) with satellite imagery to update maps in rapidly changing pre- and post-disaster environments, and offers free Mapbox tool packages to response teams.

Mapbox Cities

The resource-scarce public service environment is in dire need of an education in cost-effective yet convincing data analysis to find solutions to challenging urban problems.

Mapbox latest spin-off project, Mapbox Cities, is designed as a mentorship program, promoting a bottom-up, citizen-centric but data-driven approach to making cities ‘smarter’.

“We noticed that many cities see releasing open datasets as the holy grail. Yes, it is a necessary first step, but it is not all that is needed to become a smart community.” said Christina Franken, Mapbox Cities Lead at Mapbox. “We were overwhelmed by the success of the open call in September. We received more than 50 qualifying applications for Mapbox Cities from aspiring smart communities around the globe.

According to Mapbox, to act smart, cities have to start analysing and combining different data sets in relation to their biggest challenges. Just the way a dataset is presented can make it a convincing argument for or against a cause.

The mentorship program promises a free-of-charge, long-term commitment to three finalist cities. But all cities that applied to Mapbox Cities receive free access to Mapbox Tools. The team provides cities with hands-on, step-by-step tutorials on how to effectively work with datasets and display them using Mapbox tools.

According to Mapbox, “Simply displaying a large dataset on a map won’t deliver true insights.”

Simply displaying a large dataset on a map won’t deliver true insights.”

One example is Mapbox’s visualisation of 5 years of U.S. Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) data. Ramya Ragupathy and Dave Cole, also of Mapbox, created a tool that allowed people to enter their daily commute to learn more about fatalities along their route, including contributing factors to the crashes. This makes the data personal to a driver, putting them in a position to rethink their responsibility and future actions.

Mapbox FARS data visualization

A visual iterative approach to data analysis

Mapbox Cities promotes a challenge based, iterative approach for local governments to make smarter, data driven decisions. Every project starts with framing the city’s main challenge. The team at Mapbox encourages participating cities to drill down to the core of their challenges.

Next the team identifies the datasets needed to create meaningful displays and convince stakeholders to rethink their positions. It’s helpful to index which datasets are available and relevant to the subject, regardless of whether they are accessible on an open data platform or not.

For a true citizen-centric approach, Mapbox encourages participatory, crowdsourced data collection using OpenStreetMap and Mapbox tools.

A great example is this crowdsourced visualization of Chennai’s flooded streets after the wettest monsoons of the century. Daily life for over 6.7 million people was disrupted but no up-to-date map of flooded streets as a measure of the devastation was available to residents and local media. The easy-to-use digital tool lets users zoom in, discover which streets are reported as flooded (pink), or click on a street that they know is flooded to report it. Within 24 hours, over 2,500 streets were reported to be flooded by the citizens of Chennai using the tool, putting the scale of the devastation into the center of the media’s attention and leading the way to improving the situation.

Chennai Floodmap — open source community feedback tool

Another example is the crowdsourcing pilot project that Statistics Canada recently launched to focus on mapping buildings across Canada in order to build a national-level database on statistics on buildings and their attributes — that can be used to compare specific local areas.

Common challenges for many cities globally are traffic congestion, mobility and mode share related. As a provider of maps and navigation products for anything from cars, to electric scooters, to bicycles to hiking — including high resolution maps for use in autonomous vehicles — Mapbox offers analysis based on its global mobile sensor dataset to the three finalist cities. To further bridge the gap between public sector reality and the latest trends in tech and mobility, Mapbox offers policy advice for incorporating autonomous vehicles into their urban infrastructure.

“We see our collaboration with cities as a growing relationship, to better understand how our approach can benefit public sector environments. As an open source company, we freely share our expertise in data with those that need it most- in the long run, this will help change the way people move around cities and understand our planet.” adds Mikel Maron from the Mapbox Data Team.

Cross-sector collaboration is crucial

The three Mapbox Cities finalists have not yet been announced, but Mapbox already has some initial recommendations for public — private sector collaborations.

When discussing solutions with stakeholders from different departments, Christina Franken recommends to be visual. Sometimes even tangible artefacts help to discuss complex scenarios and prototypes. The idea is to lower the barrier to entry and allow for anyone to join the discussion, generate consensus on what works and what needs to change, and then move on to practice what’s been established.

The varying pace of everyday operations and decision making between local government and startups can have a frustrating effect. Complex approval structures are a huge blocker for participants to stay engaged in cross-sector collaboration.

According to Christina Franken, one indicator for promising smart city schemes that stands out are cross-disciplinary smart city departments. Fighting traditional siloed department structures, such dedicated departments facilitate research, run point on external communications and events for the public, and enable knowledge transfer across rigid municipal structures.

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Christina Franken

I'm an architect, a generalist - instead of buildings, I prefer to create systems based on true user needs ❤️ #SmartCities #SmartBuildings #OpenData