June 29, 2016

Open data creates life-simplifying apps

Ronja Oja has been blind since eleven years old. She uses augmented reality app Blind Square, which is based on open data, to navigate the city of Helsinki.
Ronja Oja has been blind since eleven years old. She uses augmented reality app Blind Square, which is based on open data, to navigate the city of Helsinki.
Aleksi Poutanen

Cities are constantly gathering and producing immense amounts of information. What if all that data were up for grabs for anyone to use?

The Helsinki Region Infoshare service has opened the capital region’s data for everyone, and gives rise to apps and services that make everyday life easier.

Open data, open access

Once upon a time there was a king, who ordered his subjects to gather all possible information about his kingdom: what was the weather like at 5:30 am, how often did people travel between villages, and how long did the journey take. He also wanted to know what diseases existed in different parts of the village, and which grains were farmed on each strip of land.

Open data helps urban city dwellers to create neat apps to ease everyday life.

Open data helps urban city dwellers to create neat apps to ease everyday life.

Aleksi Poutanen

“What will the king do with all this information?” his subjects wondered. The truth was: nothing. He stored all the information in a large vault in his castle. The end.

Fortunately, in today’s world, fact is more magical than fiction. Finland’s capital region cities Helsinki, Vantaa, Espoo and Kauniainen collect all the possible information, but unlike the king of the story, they make the most out of this of this data and have it openly accessible to anyone.

A recipient of multiple international awards, the Helsinki Region Infoshare service (HRI) contains over 1 200 open statistics and datasets. New data keeps pouring to the service constantly as cities collect and produce information all the time. Among other things, the service contains all the concerts of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra since 1882, the investments of the city of Vantaa and the food establishments in Helsinki. Anyone can access and download the data from the HRI website and use it to their liking.

Open data creates new apps

Only five years ago the cities functioned like the king; gathering all the data only for himself. They collected huge amounts of information on the city and its citizens, which was utilised only by civil servants in decision making and designing services. If statistics indicated that a service – say a branch library – is used more than expected, it is easier to oppose its termination.

The cities utilise the data they collect to create services for their citizens, but sometimes someone else can do it better – and faster.

Helsinki, Vantaa, Espoo and Kauniainen started opening their data in 2011 and it has led to creating several services and apps. For example, after a stormy winter night, you are able to follow the real-time movement of snowploughs on your phone, you can also check whether your train is on time as well as how many city bikes there are available in front of the Helsinki railway station.

The HRI service, which has hundreds of statistics, resembles a big box full of Legos. So, no wonder that the city of Vantaa built a model of their city in the Minecraft game using the city’s elevation model, different geographic information datasets, and the National Land Survey’s Topographic database.

Transparent decision making

Creating neat apps to ease the life of urban city dwellers is not the only aim behind open data access. It also makes decision making transparent and thus improves democracy.

“Making lots of our city purchase data public opened up a new view for citizens into city administration, and it increases people’s trust toward the city and its officials,” says project manager of Helsinki City Urban Facts Tanja Lahti.

The city has also estimated that opening up the data has resulted in 1–2 per cent savings, because projects are now undertaken with more background knowledge.

But what if someone abuses open data? The fear that officials might be feeling is understandable, since they cannot know beforehand how the information is going to be used. However, not a single case of misuse has been reported.

Being this open means a big shift in attitudes in the cities’ administration, but for those officials having mixed feelings about openness Lahti has an answer:

“The information belongs to the citizens.”

Text: Ilkka Pernu

 

The article was originally posted on Design Stories from Helsinki

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