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Open data encourages local authorities to collaborate with citizens

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par Elsa Sidawy | 03.22.11

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On Thursday 17th March, the World e.gov Forum, RSLN (Regards Sur le Numérique: visions of digital technology) and Microsoft France organised a debate-conference on open data: “Open data, what about us?”. Experts, elected representatives and various thought agitators took the floor one after the other to try and answer the questions legitimately raised by this phenomenon, which affects small local authorities as much as States throughout the world.

The public power will have to open a debate on public data,” Bernard Stiegler, the director of the Institute for Research and Innovation at Centre Pompidou, announced straightaway, thus suggesting the tenor of the comments to come. For the philosopher who introduced the debates, data release is something close to the writing or the printing revolution. Will open data be big step for humanity?

The city council coproduction will require collective intelligence
Serge Soudoplatoff, from the Fondapol (Fondation pour l’innovation politique: Foundation for political innovation), introduced the first round table on the following topic: “What meaning can we give the world of open data?”. Basing his observations on examples abroad, he explained that entering collective intelligence required deep changes in administrative governance. This paradigmatic change will compel local authorities to switch to a collaborative mode, which implies that “they will have to get over the usual political divides of parties fighting against each another.

Jean-Louis Missika, the Paris deputy-mayor in charge of innovation, insists: “We are going through a period of deep change. When this type of technological break happens, the whole of society’s sectors are transformed and there are no reason why politics should not change.” The elected representative sees open data as a key element of this new form of governance between those who govern and those being governed in a city that would be coproduced. In order to reach this goal, the current information imbalances must be reduced: “to fight against this information imbalance, data must be released so they can be processed by everyone”. According to the media sociologist, local authorities should be managed somewhat like a firm, offering citizens a performance contract as a guarantee. Still today, most of the world’s cities are organised in silos: powerful departments that do not communicate much with each other, thus contributing to the public power inertia easily imagined by citizens. It appears now necessary to decompartmentalise it all and ensure transversal exchanges between the various departments of the city.

Michael Cross, journalist at The Guardian and initiator of the open data movement (Free our data) in Europe, went back on the transparency offered by the release of data. This transparency has been quite perceptible since the election of the new English government.

Trusting citizens’ creative abilities
The second round table, “Open data: how does it work?”, tackled the concrete experiments made in Rennes, a pioneer in France, and Edmonton, a pioneer in Canada and in the world. Xavier Crouan, the director of Digital information and innovation in the city of Rennes and in the Rennes metropolis, went back on the competition launched after the release of the city’s data on the website data.rennes-metropole in February 2010. “A tremendous accelerator to develop applications, he says, but also a means to give our public policies directions on accessibility or eco-mobility for instance.” At the close of this competition, which recently ended, 50 applications were created and 43 of them were selected to be subject to a vote from the audience, the results of which will be displayed on the 30th of March. For Xavier Crouan, this approach first and foremost enabled to call upon the “creative abilities of citizens,” who can thus design the services they need. This observation confirms that social innovation is not only in the hands of institutions anymore but also in the hands of citizens themselves. For the city of Rennes, this action enabled to “create a dynamic exchange, through territorial animation, between actors of the territory who did not talk to each other.

In Nantes, on the contrary, the city council did not take the initiative to release its public data, recalls Claire Gallon, from the association LiberTIC. Unlike what happened in other city councils, a community of “promoters” doing fieldwork increased citizens’ awareness and lobbied. “Thanks to this mobilisation work, we managed to catch the attention of elected representatives,” Claire Gallon claims. As a result, Nantes started releasing its public data on the 3rd of February.
This just goes to show the impulse can also be given by the “electoral basis” that sees in it a means to speak up. It is necessary not to make this public data release for the elite only and city councils must take their educationalist roles on that subject very seriously. For, as Jean-Louis Missika reminds us, “if we are able to produce intelligent deliberation, build appropriate tools and have people who can make them their own, then we will enter a world in which the ordinary citizen will not only be entitled to his or her say but will also be truly able to participate in a local or national political decision.” It goes without saying it will be a revolution.

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Translated by Oona Bijasson

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