Subnational Data Innovation Research Blog Series: The Advent of Data Infrastructure

This piece was originally published on Open Data Policy Lab’s website.

Photo by Markus Spiske/Unsplash is licensed under CC0.

The Open Data Policy Lab’s City Incubator program was established in September 2021 to help realize the Third Wave of Open Data at the subnational level by building data capacity among city intrapreneurs. In its first iteration, the program supported innovators from ten cities around the world to better use data to address the opportunities and challenges they face.

Reflecting on the six-month program, the work enabled participants to meet the needs of their cities and the people within them. They also revealed shared themes across cities — common challenges and issues that defined urban, data-driven work in the 21st century. This blog explores one of the emerging themes we saw from participants in the City Incubator program: the advent of data infrastructure.

The projects and our conversations with participants show that “data infrastructure” was central to three of the participants’ considerations. This focus of “data infrastructure” as it relates to data innovation in cities manifested in three ways: advocacy by data teams to acquire better data infrastructure, digital literacy in city governments, and the role of legislation as a data infrastructure enabler.

In the below, we focus on the emerging focus of data infrastructure as it relates to data innovation in cities. We first seek to define what is meant by data infrastructure and subsequently consider challenges cities are facing in regard to building and advocating for better data infrastructure within data innovation projects.

How do we define data infrastructure?

The World Bank’s World Development Report of 2021 highlighted data infrastructure as the prerequisite for development, participation in the data-driven economy, and digital inclusion. But what is data infrastructure? How do we define its scope?

Many assume that data infrastructure solely consists of physical and technical assets such as software, data warehouses, and datasets. However, data infrastructure encompasses the entire ecosystem that makes data innovations possible: governance frameworks, policies, organizations, staff, talent, and communities involved in maintaining it.

City Incubator participants recognized this fact throughout their work. One participant, Danny Perches, the Development Project Facilitator for the City of Springfield, Missouri in the United States, described data infrastructure as the combination of technology, people, and culture, reaffirming the notion of a data infrastructure ecosystem is also prevalent at a city level.

Advocating for investment in data infrastructure

However, getting the resources needed to build these structures can be hard. City Incubator participants constantly reiterated the extent to which technical teams need to advocate for investment in data infrastructure. They spoke at length about having to persuade city officials and decision-makers to invest in and allocate necessary resources for data infrastructure, whether it is for assets or for human capital.

The consequences of not receiving support can be dire. In the case of the City of Mendoza, Argentina, where Luciano Pedro Santoni led a smart traffic project, the Spatial Data Team lost a GIS and geodatabase management software’s licensing due to the lack of investment, especially as the municipality’s priority had become allocating resources for COVID-19 response. Although the platform remained operational, the team was unable to conduct periodic updates and lost new functions and maintenance support. As their project is based on the software, this resulted in the data team having to explore new options that did not rely on the license.

In circumstances where upgrading assets require significant financial investment, data teams are often expected to justify investments and are further burdened with the time-consuming, mundane, and bureaucratic processes that could take months for an investment to be approved. As Emri Brickner, Smart City Department Manager for the Be’er Sheva, Israel described, a city government’s mission is to provide value, not just to build data infrastructure, yet having a robust, up-to-date data infrastructure is essential to deliver services.

The role of digital literacy in city governments: making the case for better data infrastructure

The negotiation required to secure financial and human capital investment to strengthen data infrastructure has another challenging layer: the gap in technical knowledge between data teams and many decision-makers in cities.

Luciano and Emri mentioned that data teams often face challenges when communicating with non-technical staff about data initiatives. Emri emphasized that because his data innovation follows the product-led growth model where data teams get limited funding in the initial stages, the gap in technical knowledge between data experts and decision-makers inhibits the process of receiving additional investment for data infrastructure that could significantly improve their services and products.

For example, to address this gap in digital literacy skills between technically-literate public servants (Singapore’s public service officers) and those who are not, Singapore’s Smart Nation, for example, trained 20,000 civil servants in data analytics and data science. Facilitated by the Digital Academy and online training through an application dedicated to public service officers, Singapore has been able to increase the competency of its public sector, making the conversations around data infrastructure more effortless for all parties involved.

To implement and scale data innovations in a more timely and efficient manner, city leaders can collaborate with technical teams to equip civil servants with digital literacy skills to strengthen the overall data ecosystem and infrastructure around innovations and to catalyze a cultural shift in the public sector more appropriate for 21st-century governance.

Legislation as a data infrastructure enabler

Although data infrastructure is foundational for data innovation, technical teams within city governments often have to advocate for investments and negotiate with decision-makers without digital expertise.

One mechanism to secure investment in data infrastructure long-term is the codification of open data initiatives that institutionalize data innovations more systematically, legally, and culturally. For instance in New York City, the Open Data law enacted in 2012 ensures that NYC Open Data is sustained structurally and financially regardless of administration changes.

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This piece highlights the challenges and opportunities data innovators face when advocating for better data infrastructure in city governments, which was one of the emerging trends we saw in the participating cities of the City Incubator program, a 6-month program launched to realize the goal of the Third Wave of Open Data to build data capacity among innovators at the subnational level.

We encourage city leaders and everyone interested in the topic to explore the City Incubator program website, participating cities’ presentations on their initiatives featured on CUSP Research Seminar Series, and other works related to the Third Wave of Open Data.

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Special thanks to the interviewees for their time and insights.

Danny Perches, Development Project Facilitator, City Manager’s Office, City of Springfield, Missouri, United State of America

Luciano Pedro Santoni, Geographer, Spatial Data Team, Mendoza City, Argentina

Emri Brickner, Former Smart City Department Manager, Municipal Division of IT & Innovation, Beer Sheva, Israel

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