Open Data Can Boost Vitality of the City

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Making more government datasets available could not only boost the economy. It may even save lives.

The Government recently proposed opening its a greater range of data sets for use by the public. However, the key to a smooth implementation lies in departmental collaboration, data quality, and relevant experience.

Dr Tang meets Dr. Amen Ra Mashariki, NYC.

Dr. Amen Ra Mashariki, a smart-city data expert from the United States, had served the City of New York for over 3 years as Director of the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics (MODA) and Chief Data Analytics Officer. He has extensive experience in using open data to improve the efficiency of city operations and enhance the economic vitality of the New York City (NYC). I was honoured to invite him to give a keynote speech at the 2017 Esri China (Hong Kong) User Conference in late November this year.

He shared his experience on how to prevent the outbreak of a large-scale epidemic of a deadly disease and how to use open data to support economic development.

Looking for Legionnaires

The US Census Bureau estimated that the population of NYC was 8.5 million last year, similar to Hong Kong’s population of over 7 million. Both cities have many old buildings which can easily lead to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, a sometimes fatal form of contagious atypical pneumonia that falls especially hard on the elderly and those with compromised health.

According to the information provided by the Centre for Health Protection of the Hong Kong Department of Health, Hong Kong recorded 66 cases of Legionnaires’ disease to October 2017. This total is similar to that of total cases for the past two years. The disease is even more serious in New York where 128 people were infected in 2015, 12 of them fatally.

Legionella bacteria are found in different freshwater environments, such as water tanks, hot and cold water systems, cooling tower and more. It grows well in warm water (20 – 45°C). People can be infected by inhaling contaminated droplets and mist released from artificial water systems.

One of the main sources is contaminated central air conditioning cooling towers. Health officials face the challenge of identifying high-risk buildings among over one million buildings in NYC. The government didn’t have a full list of locations of cooling towers, so Dr. Mashariki and his team had to pull together fragmented data from multiple sources and made deductions using a machine learning algorithm. After some hard work, the department’s hit rate increased sharply from 10% to 80%. That is, among every ten attempts to identify high-risk buildings, eight would find water cooling towers that have been contaminated.

Dr. Amen Ra Mashariki, a smart city data expert and New York City Director of the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics (MODA) and Chief Data Analytics Officer.

In fact, open data policies are merely an executive order in many parts of the US, but in NYC, it is the law which mandates all public data to be made available on a single web platform by end of 2018. At present, the New York web portal has over 1,700 datasets, nearly double the size of the second highest U.S. city.

But data in itself may not mean anything to the general public. It is important to process them for an effective and useful purpose. Dr. Mashariki said that his work in New York was like a “no-cost data analytics consulting firm”, one of the tasks was to give a hand to the resource-poor SMEs by ensuring data was readable and ‘clean’, that is, not riddled with errors.

For example, a large company can undertake comprehensive market surveys to choose the best location for its operating a new shop. But an entrepreneur may not have such resources. So Dr. Mashariki partnered with the Small Business Services agency to produce a Business Atlas, which linked with 9 government departments, including the state liquor license organization, federal departments, the Census Bureau and more. The team used analytics to create a map so that small enterprises could simply input the address to obtain all sorts of information, from demographics (income, age) to business activities, and this gave the entrepreneurs very useful information for consideration.

He pointed out that constant application is the key to grow the quality of data. This naturally would attract more users and thus expand the impact of data. Like New York’s open data, it was not only used by the citizens but also government departments.
Data sharing is the key to smart city. New York City was awarded the “2016 Best Smart City” at the Smart City Expo World Congress in Spain last year. Open data is part of the city, enabling the people to ‘get smart’ by using previously unavailable data.

I believe that with the opening and sharing of data, it will inject new impetus into the city and open a new horizon for creative thinking of the entire society, especially among young people.

· Current estimates of New York City’s population for July 2016, NYC Planning
· “How Data Can Stop Your City From Burning to the Ground”, 10-05-2017, Nicholas Deleon, Motherboard
· “NYC’s Amen Ra Mashariki on Putting Analytics, Open Data to Use to Improve City Operations”, 20-01-2016, Steve Towns, GovTech
· Open Data for All New Yorkers
· “New York Named “2016 Best Smart City,” NYC To Host 2017 International Conference On Urban Technology At Brooklyn Navy Yard”, 28-11-2017, NYC

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