In the past city planning was done mostly based on available data, thought leadership and public opinion. Census data, traffic movement statistics, environmental impact information and building permit data were the common data which was available to planners and most of these data were often old and dated and irrelevant which ultimately showed on the quality of urban planning with resultant consequences. Today scenario is completely different. Today, “smart cities”, “human centric design”, and “data-driven cities” are the buzz-words and IT and communication revolution of 21stcentury have completely changed the way we live and think. In the past, city planning was the forte of planners, architects, engineers and urban designers. But today other specialists are brought to the table including people with titles such as Chief Economist, Chief Innovation Officer, Chief Resiliency Officer, Chief Information Officer, Chief Technology Officer, Chief Digital Officer, Chief Data Officer, and even Chief Transformation Officer, among others. At the same time, source and relevance of data in planning and its volume has increased significantly.
Data plays significant role in the empowerment of communities by using information available through various sources to improve their functioning, public services, governance systems, achievements and failures in the public domain, which will eventually lead to empowering the citizens through the access to information. There is no doubt that the future of Governance is data-driven and Indian cities should start to adopt this change in their functioning. People need to be the focus of the planning and therefore, we need to move towards outcome-based planning in governance. So, the focus should be on collecting reliable, up-to-date information on a meaningful set of indicators over various domains such as transport, health, environment, water, finance and so on, which will further assist in developing best practices, future strategies and policy interventions as and when required.
With the Internet of Things (IoT) coming into play data generation through extensive broadband and Wi-Fi deployment has become much easier. Also, provision of a network of sensors through new physical infrastructure such as LED light poles or to other public infrastructure such as traffic lights, electrical power poles and transformers, public buildings, streets and open spaces ensures that there are multiple points to collect data. The number such sensors, cameras and other monitor and recording devices, expected to reach 50 billion by 2020, can measure every environmental and public and private activity imaginable. So, data collection will not be a difficult task in future.
When we place so much importance on data, the quality of data and its analysis also should be of the highest order. One should always remember that data available data may be incomplete or it may not reveal ground reality. For example, data on employment may not reveal much about the quality of jobs in an area because emphasis in such cases will be more on knowing unemployment rate. Similarly, when it comes to public transportation, people are concerned about reliability: are buses on time or late? Planners might miss this issue if they are focused on metrics like the number of bus lines or transit hubs in a neighbourhood.
Yes, significance of data in today’s urban planning has increased and it will increase further in the coming years with the invention of many data gathering tools. However, it also gives birth to a big question – who all will collect data? And how the security of the data will be maintained? When data becomes the backbone of every decision, demand for the same will also increase which may lead to security breach and its misuse. So, it’s very important that the government decides as to who will be allowed to gather data and how the data so collected will be protected from being misused. Of course, restricting the data collection activities to government agencies is the best option but it may have an impact on the quality of the data collected which may eventually lead to poor decisions in urban planning. So, there is an urgent need to improve the efficiency of data gathering by the government agencies who need to add an additional layer of data collection to make it more useful and meaningful. Also, current way of data gathering will give quantitative output which may not be sufficient in present day context. So more emphasis should be on local data collection so as to be able to measure the more qualitative aspects of an area down to the neighbourhood scale.
In this context it is really heartening to see the inauguration of India Urban Observatory in Delhi last week by Hardeep S Puri, Minister of State (I/C) for Housing and Urban Affairs. It shows that the government is aware of the changing face of the urban planning and the growing significance of data in planning. On the occasion he spoke about the significance of data in transforming the cities and in improving the governance. One only hopes that the Minister has spoken the mind of the government and the government walks the talk.