Cities are vital to the UK economy, with the 64 largest cities accounting for 58 per cent of jobs, 60 per cent of GVA, and 72 per cent of high skilled workers.4 This means that polices that stimulate urban growth will stimulate growth of the national economy.

Cities are also diverse, complex and fast-changing, so understanding them in order to improve them is a challenge. Cities face a range of issues which limit their success and how well they function, including congestion, quality of housing and increasing pressure on services and resources due to population growth. To craft solutions to these challenges, we first need to better measure and understand them.

Currently, the amount of robust, publicly available data at a city level is limited, both in its range and its timeliness. For example, the data publicly available on house prices is a year old and business export data is not publicly available at a Local Authority level, despite this information being held by the Government. This places unnecessary restrictions on understanding the challenges and opportunities faced by individual cities and the ability to develop efficient policies that improve the way they function.

Two new ways of improving the amount and quality of information available on cities can help address this problem. The first is the Government’s Open Data Policy. The second is the innovative use of big data.

Through its Open Data Policy, the Government has committed itself to making more of its data freely available to use and re-distribute. This commitment was made with a view to becoming one of the most open and transparent governments in the world. The 2012 Open Data White Paper noted this would generate savings, promote innovation and support social and economic growth.4 To date over 10,000 datasets are listed as available for download via www.data.gov.uk, ranging from British road lengths by road class to TB in cattle. But despite BIS reporting that the most popular dataset category requests are location-specific data,6 the amount of data publicly available below the regional level remains limited.

To date there has been a weakness on the demand side of the open data agenda, with the agenda being driven by what the Government wants rather than on what users want. This creates a problem because the impact of the policy is dependent on the level of demand for the datasets released. If the Government simply releases datasets that are used by very few people – either because the public is unaware the data is available or because there is limited need for the data released – by definition the benefits of an Open Data Policy will be limited.

Part of boosting demand for what’s available is providing a clear, searchable list of what data is collected and what data is currently publicly available. And the UK Government has committed to improving lists of what data each department collects and is also currently consulting via the data.gov.uk site as to which datasets to prioritise releasing.

But to ensure the full benefits of following an Open Data Policy are realised it needs to do more to raise awareness of the data that is already publicly available and the data it holds that could be made available.

Big data offers an alternative way to understand the challenges facing cities through use of privately held data such as mobile phone records and data collected from sensors. Cities around the world are making increasing use of this type of big data, including cities in countries such as the Ivory Coast, where location data from mobile phone records was used to determine how to reduce bus journey times through reducing congestion.

Whilst the Government’s open data agenda is beginning to focus more on releasing data for which there is a known demand, big data projects have taken a more speculative approach. In these projects cities and organisations work together to collect a range of data, interlink it, then determine how this data could best be used to improve city performance. The UK currently lags behind other countries in the development and adoption of such methods, especially when compared with the United States. The progress made in other countries provides a good opportunity for UK cities to identify ways to improve the way they function.

This report looks at the city level benefits seen around the world from the opening up of public and private data, in order to illustrate how the sharing of such data is critical for improving the functioning of our cites and life of citizens. It reviews the Government’s Open Data Strategy, the uses of big data and the main areas in which the UK’s data collection needs to be improved to allow for a deeper understanding of the key issues cities face.

Section 1 highlights the benefits that sharing government data creates and the importance of engaging with organisations, institutions and citizens to increase awareness and use of the data the Government holds. It also suggests a campaign for the release of data currently held by the Government that would have a significant impact on our understanding of cities and outlines areas in which data collection needs to be improved.

Section 2 looks at the city-level benefits from the use and sharing of privately held big data. It highlights examples of countries that have seen city level improvements from either making big data fully publicly available or available at a city level.

Section 3 looks at the main barriers to overcome when sharing data, particularly privacy, as well as the cost of organising and publishing data, the lack of demand for data, the uncertainty over continuing supply of data and the lack of the necessary skills to work with big data.

Section 4 presents conclusions, emphasising that while open data policies and use of big data have already led to improvements at a city level in the UK and internationally, much more can be done, both by the Government and cities, to promote and realise the full range of opportunities these methods offer cities.


  • 4 Centre for Cities (2013) Cities Outlook – based on Primary Urban Areas
  • 5 Centre for Cities (2013) Cities Outlook – based on Primary Urban Areas
  • 6 BIS (May 2013) Market Assessment of Public Sector Information.