Last year Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's call for an 'ideas boom' coupled with $1.1 billion of investment over the next four years in business-based research, innovation and development was an example of the significant epoch in which we currently find ourselves. Encouraging innovation and embracing risk to build a stronger economy based on the technology and ideas of the future is the rallying call of politicians and business leaders alike. It is the goal of nations who are looking to be 'a' if not 'the' engine of intellectual capital in a world which is inherently and increasingly subject to the volatility of change. The race to be innovative could be categorised as our generation's space race. However, rather than two nations vying for the technological mantle, this is a global pursuit.

This discussion often centres around the exemplar 'high-profile' tech-companies such as Facebook, Google and Apple which typify the fruits of an economy which fosters innovative and creative thinking. We muse as to what an example of the 'Australian Facebook' may look like. In short, we focus on the ends but not the means. It is important that we collectively reflect on the role that context, culture, environment and place play in fostering innovation. To understand that it does not happen in a vacuum or by accident. Investing in our cities is key to catalysing an 'ideas boom'.

Cities that we plan and create have an instrumental role in encouraging and accelerating a culture of innovation. An often cited example of a location which has become synonymous with innovation within the tech industry is California's Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley's contribution to the US economy is significant, accounting for 12.4% of all patents registered in the United States. An impressive proportion, given that it only accounts for a mere 0.05% of the total land area of the country[1].

Australian cities which capitalise on our natural environment, diversity and our proximity to Asia will attract talent from around the globe, retain skilled Australian workers from leaving our shores and accelerate a culture of innovation, creativity, imagination and entrepreneurism. There is no question about it, our cities must be (and can be) the laboratories for the innovative approaches which are required. We must take the principle of embracing risk as an opportunity, and apply it to the way we plan and deliver our future cities.

The same 'start-up' values that we wish to see exhibited in successful 21st century 'smart cities' can also be applied to the process of city making itself. Importantly, this process is taking root within the professions of city planning, urban design and architecture. Open Data/Big Data coupled with data analytics and new, disruptive technologies are altering the way we design, build, operate, conceptualise and examine our cities. Extracting insight and understanding from large datasets is a powerful, yet significantly under utilised tool in the possession of all professionals, stakeholders and citizens involved in reimagining our cities. The way our cities work (or don't work) can be found within the columns and rows of our datasets. It is vital that we invest in its potential.

What is Open Data and how it can be utilised in the process of city making

Data is everywhere. Every time you tag in, connect to WI-FI, swipe right or upload a photo you are creating new data. Data is essentially structured information, an example being your typical spreadsheet of names, address and phone numbers. On top of this information there is also meta-data. This is information about the information. It includes such things as when a dataset was last revised, who maintains the data, how many times has it been accessed and so on. There is two types of data that would be typically used in a planning context. That is spatical data (mapping imagery, shapefiles, geotags) and non-spatial data, which is essentially everything else: population, age demographics etc.

Governments, research institutions and industry all collect data, however this is often siloed, separated, formatted differently or trapped within unmanipulatable formats. By creating greater transparency in data, allowing the cross-pollination of different data sets and creating standards (so that different datasets can be linked) we can quickly develop insights and understandings. There are privacy issues which must be addressed, however these are not insurmountable with thoughtful consideration and technological advancements.

Open Data is the idea that datasets should be able to 'speak' to each other, available in a multitude of different formats that are editable and adjustable, and that for the most part, barring any security, privacy or commercial concerns, it should be available for free to the public. Events such as Gov Hack, which connect creative people with large depositories of Open Data, yield significant results and unlock the potential of our data, showcases the power of utilising this data.

That is not say that this hasn't already taken place. Many agencies already publish their data online, however data is often fragmented and policies on what data should be released change from department to department. Access to reliable and open datasets can provide significant insight into the way our cities work and open a world of 'evidence-based' city making. Data for the sake of data is pointless. It does not matter how many data points you have, if they cannot be stitched together to form a coherent picture.

What is more important than the scale of the data collected is the analysis distilling the hidden story from within to find the most efficient design solution, or to solve issues before they become problems. When information silos (government, research, organisations etc) are broken down and the cross-pollination of data takes place, significant social and economic progress and exponential possibilities can be unlocked.

As professionals responsible for imagining the future ways in which we will live and how our cities and urban realm will look, using data about our cities to understand them and diagnose design solutions is critical. We must understand and embrace the potential of data-informed decision making teamed with industry knowledge established over decades.

Access to updated, high resolution geo-spatical data like satellite imagery and cadastral boundaries; using layered data to understand how people move through and use their city; examining crime statistics to root out trouble areas and create safer cities; analysing health data and census demographics to create healthy cities that are better aligned with the needs of the community, are just a few of the many examples of how data can be applied to the process of city making.

WA Open Data Policy and Portal

This of course can only happen when significant resources and time is invested in developing the infrastructure for this information sharing to take place. In Western Australia this process has begun and is building up steam. In 2015, the State Government announced the implementation of a WA Open Data Policy to provide scope and consistency in how different governmental agencies should approach the collating and publishing of Open Data. If you would like a deeper dive into the policy itself, you can find it here.

Landgate's role within the Open Data space is not to provide services and mapping systems, rather they are focused on identifying and aggregating as many datasets as possible in one easy to find location. This location being the data.wa.gov website. Landgate's responsibility is essentially the cataloging of data, whilst the maintaining and publishing of datasets stays with the organisation which created the data.

There are a number of events and milestone which will take place in the WA Data world and the best way to stay informed with everything that is happening is by subscribing to the the newsletter at data.wa.gov.au. Landgate is also involved in a number of events focused on the potential of disruptive technology and data listed below.

Find our more and get involved?

  • Western Australian Government Open Data website is a modern, user-friendly, API-enabled data portal backed by the popular and widely used CKAN project. Find out more and subscribe to the newsletter here
  • HackED introduces high school students in Years 7 to 10 to the power of location information and technology and enables them to use it as part of problem-solving at school and as part of everyday decision-making in the work place in the future. Find out more here
  • GovHack is an event that draws people together to innovate with Open Government Data. The best teams have a mix of skills, so we encourage every one to come along including entrepreneurs, developers, designers, digital media creators, artists, story tellers, researchers and open data enthusiasts. Find out more here
[1]Silicon Valley is a colloquial term for a collection of cities within California. Definition of the total land area will change subject to how the area is defined. For more information click here.