Is Big Data Just for Big Cities?

Small and midsize cities are behind in harnessing data to make a city run smarter. Dubuque, Iowa, is bucking that trend.
by | July 2013

Dubuque, Iowa, has a population of just under 60,000, but it’s doing something few other cities its size have ever tried. It’s embedding technology in utility meters to collect and analyze water, gas and electricity use; it’s even using radio frequency identification tags to track how some people move about to gain a better understanding of the city’s traffic and transportation issues.

Dubuque’s experiment is part of a growing trend in government toward the collection of more data and better uses for it. State and local governments will spend $58 billion on information technology in 2013, according to the market analyst firm Gartner. And while the ongoing fiscal problems have slowed IT investments, the use of technology and automation in states and localities will continue to grow.

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Unfortunately, the Dubuques of this country are the exception, not the rule, when it comes to harnessing data to make a city run smarter. The cities where smart data is gospel tend to be the nation’s largest, says Bill Schrier, former Seattle chief technology officer and now a senior policy adviser for Washington state’s Office of the Chief Information Officer (and the deputy director of the Center for Digital Government at e.Republic, Governing’s parent company). “It hasn’t [generally] gotten down to the mid- and small-sized cities,” he says.

Part of the reason for that is money -- as in, smaller cities just don’t have it. But like so many other transformative technology stories, the growth of smart data in government isn’t so much a hardware and software problem as it is an organizational issue. Some of the coolest projects depend on open data that the public and other agencies can share and use. But local governments struggle with the data governance issues. Who owns the data? Who controls the data?

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One of the more intriguing possibilities for getting data to the Dubuques of the nation is the potential for sharing data and applications between cities. Last year, seven major cities launched a program to create a database of standardized open data applications that could be shared among members. The hope is that as open data sets proliferate and more applications come online, they can be used by different (and smaller) cities. “That’s a real boon to [any city] because [they] don’t have to spend taxpayer dollars to create them,” former San Francisco CIO Jon Walton told Governing last year.

But in order for apps to share data between cities, the data has to be in the same format, and that is a whole other issue. Most cities have their own designs for data sets that are rooted in the early days of computing. Incompatible data prevails, and getting all cities to use the same schema for common data is a slow, grinding process.

One day there may be an app that does just that, but not yet. Until then, an experiment like Dubuque will remain unique for most cities of its size.

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