Cities are increasingly awash in “big data,” and the intelligence hidden in that information represents a vast, untapped resource that could help make life...

Cities are increasingly awash in “big data,” and the intelligence hidden in that information represents a vast, untapped resource that could help make life in communities better, cleaner and more efficient.

Improved energy efficiency is just one benefit that cities could reap from making better use of the smart technologies they’ve already put in place, according to new report, “Information Marketplaces: The New Economics of Cities.” A group effort published by The Climate Group, Accenture, Arup and Horizon Digital Economy Research at The University of Nottingham, the study identifies a number of ways in which metro areas could tap into the growing amounts of data they generate.

“Through better use of information and communications, our cities have the potential to be ‘mined’ for surplus capacity, by using data and information to improve services for citizens at a low cost,” the report states.

One way to better put data to use involves making “both public and private datasets about the interaction between people, infrastructure and technology systems available to third-party service providers and developers.” In other words, the report’s authors recommend that cities should provide free and open access to their data in the form of application programming interfaces, or APIs, so developers can create new and innovative tools for making the most of that data.

As an example, the study points to developers who are creating mobile phone apps making it easier for commuters to choose public transportation over driving … something many congestion-plagued cities could benefit from.

Just as government rules and regulations have been unable to keep up with ever-accelerating advances in technology, city decision-makers are having a hard time keeping up with the growing amounts of potentially useful data available to them, the report suggests.

“This isn’t only a technical challenge, it is a leadership challenge,” said Mark Kenber of The Climate Group. “As the report shows, cities are already making investments in low carbon ‘smart’ services from cycle hire schemes to real time transportation apps, and are increasingly the site for smart grid and distributed electricity generation pilot projects. But the explosion in access to data — 400 percent growth since 2005 — means that more low carbon services could be developed today.”

Among some of the report’s other findings and projections:

  • By 2020, five billion people will live in cities.
  • “Cities alone will have to spend a staggering $350 trillion or seven times current global GDP in the next 30 years on urban infrastructure.”
  • Sales of smartphones are expected to exceed one billion by 2016. Some five billion people already have mobile phones today, and more than half of all web connections will be mobile by 2013.
  • Smarter logistics alone could help cut fuel consumption by 27 percent.
  • The energy efficiency benefits of ICT (information and communication technologies) could be worth more than €600 billion ($850 billion).
  • Smart-grid improvements generate 50 percent more jobs than the “average infrastructure project.”