Empowered Citizens with powerful data platforms

14 May 2015

Another chapter in the smart city story is being written by citizens, who are using apps, DIY sensors, smartphones and the web to solve the city problems that matter to them.


Mobilitate is an online platform that enables citizens to actively participate in improving service delivery and holding local government accountable.

Don't Flush Me is a neat little DIY sensor and app which is single-handedly helping to solve one of New York's biggest water issues. Every time there is heavy rain in the city, raw sewage is pumped into the harbour as the sewars and stomwater drains overflow. Using a sensor which measures water levels in the sewers and storm water drains and a smart phone app, Don't Flush Me lets people know when it is 'safe to flush'. The idea emerged from a group who experienced particularly sewage-laden water while canoeing.

This is also an interesting example of how Cities and their citizens can work together to manage limited and over stretched infrastructure. Eskom's Power Alert system from 5 - 9 pm on TV is a non-internet enabled example of a similar system. Eskom's CEO Brian Dames has recently stated that this system has "helped keep the lights on this winter".

The Air Quality Egg is a community-led sensor network designed to allow anyone to collect very high resolution readings of nitrogen oxide (NO2) and carbon monoxide (CO) concentrations outside of their home. These two gases are the most indicative elements related to urban air pollution that are sense-able by inexpensive, DIY sensor.

The data is sent to the internet where it is integrated on a map to show pollution levels around the world. Researchers estimate that two million people die each year as a result of air pollution and as cities get more over-crowded, the problem is likely to get worse.

Ushahidi is a nonprofit, open-source software company that develops a Web platform that makes it easy for people in any part of the world to disseminate and collect information about a crisis. Users can submit reports by text message, e-mail, or Web postings, and the software aggregates and organizes the data into a map or timeline. In addition to its crisis-mapping software, the company has also launched a product called Swift River that uses machine-learning algorithms to extract and organize accurate information from the flood of e-mails, text messages, blog posts, and tweets that can seem overwhelming in the first days of a crisis.

Ushahidi’s crisis-mapping software was first used in early 2008 to track violent outbreaks related to the disputed Kenyan election of 2007, and it has been used since to coordinate everything from disaster relief following the earthquake that struck Haiti in January 2010, to snow cleanup in New York City this past winter.

Hedonometer is another interesting project which this year set out to map happiness and health levels in cities across the US using data from social media platforms. Such citizen generated data could be incredibly useful to city governments - informing them in real time about condition on the ground, what policies are needed in any given area and understanding the changes in the behaviour of their citizens.

These are powerful example of citizen collected and generated data. We have tried to give examples of different types of applications. The important point is that this data is being collected without government. It’s about citizens taking matters into their own hands. In this lies both a massive opportunity for government, as well as potentially a threat. The opportunity is to work with closely with your citizens to actively manage the city (as has been demonstrated by some of the examples). The threat is something that the business world is starting to understand – you cannot control the information and data in the way that it has been tightly controlled before. Data is being taken from multiple sources, mashed together, analysed and conclusions drawn. Some of this is from sources you control, but citizens also now have their own powerful sources of data – which means that they have power.

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