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Turning data into public value: European lessons on unleashing the transformative power of city data

The Productive City Dimension
Turning data into public
European lessons on unleashing the transformative power of
city data
Regional and
Urban Policy
This article is part of a series of articles based on the 14 Partnerships of the Urban Agenda for the EU. Structured
around the three city dimensions of the New Leipzig Charter (the Productive, the Green, and the Just City), the
articles link Partnerships’ actions and activities with other relevant EU projects and initiatives supported by
cohesion policy (including Urban Innovative Actions, URBACT, or Article 7 cities benefitting from the European
Regional Development Fund (ERDF)). The articles demonstrate the key role of cities in the Urban Agenda for the
EU, and focus on specific actions they have led and implemented. Overall, the articles aim to showcase practices
for and experiences in how different tools and funding support can help cities face their challenges in a strategic
way, contributing towards sustainable urban development.
Authors: Anushri Gupta and Luca Mora
European Commission
Directorate-General for Regional and Urban Policy
Directorate 1 Deputy Director-General for Implementation (REGIO.DDG)
Unit Inclusive Growth, Urban and Territorial Development (REGIO.DDG.03)
B-1049 Brussels
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for the EU through the provision of management, expertise, and administrative support to the Partnerships’,
signed between the European Commission (Directorate-General for Regional and Urban Policy) and Ecorys.
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© European Union, 2021
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Turning data into public
European lessons on unleashing the transformative
power of city data
A new window of opportunity
The age of big data and smart city technologies provides city governments with unprecedented
potential for data-driven decision making. Committed to constantly developing new urban
policy and supporting urban operations, city governments have been using data describing the
functioning of urban infrastructure assets and public services for a very long time. However,
the widespread diffusion of digital systems has now created a remarkable new window of
With many digital solutions being introduced into the built environment to improve the
sustainability of urban sociotechnical systems, enormous amounts of data are constantly
generated at the city level, and at unprecedented speed. City surveillance cameras,
government applications for public services, building automation systems, intelligent transport
systems, and smart grids are some examples of digital technologies which are contributing to
producing an exhaustive stream of data “that can be harnessed to provide urban intelligence
and reshape the practices and processes of public administrations”, creating a fertile
environment for innovation and entrepreneurial activity. When attempting to tap into these
large streams of city data, however, the opportunity to deliver sustainable value is met with
significant sociotechnical challenges, which undermine the capability of urban development
Helping cities to realise the potential of city data is a core commitment of the European
Commission, and is clearly embedded in the European policy framework. The key principles of
the New Leipzig Charter, for example, recognise that “the digitalisation of processes and their
management in cities, including massive, rapidly growing data flows” are pivotal to sustaining
urban development. The New Cohesion Policy has established that EU investments in 2021
2027 will aim to build a smarter Europe, through innovation, digitisation, economic
transformation, and support to small and medium-sized businesses”. Priority sectors that will
contribute to this evolutionary process will include, for example, the circular economy,
advanced manufacturing, cybersecurity, smart city technologies, and big data. Published in
February 2020, the European Data Strategy outlines the Commission's vision to foster data-
enabled sustainable development. The objectives of this strategy are “setting clear and fair
rules on access and re-use of data; investing in next generation standards, tools, and
infrastructures to store and process data; joining forces in European cloud capacity; pooling
European data in key sectors, with EU-wide common and interoperable data spaces; [and]
giving users rights, tools, and skills to stay in full control of their data”.
Urban Innovative Actions and the work conducted in the context of the Urban Agenda for the
EU have been translating this policy into action. A growing number of EU projects and actions
have been launched in the framework of these two flagship EU initiatives, which promote
sustainable urban development. This article will cover four of these initiatives, focusing on how
they have embedded technological advancements into city governance structures to unleash
the transformative power of city data.
Rethinking cities as data infrastructures: much more than a technical
Over the past decade, European cities have served as a crucible of data-driven innovation
oriented towards mitigating urban sustainability challenges. Many pilot projects have been
implemented in urban settings to experiment with the transformative power of data. For
example, Internet of Things (IoT) solutions have been tested for real-time monitoring purposes
in many application domains, such as waste, energy, traffic, and surveillance. Numerous open
government data and government-led data analytics programmes have been launched.
Platform solutions have been introduced, including Uber and Airbnb, which operationalise
sharing economy principles while drastically altering public service provision.
These urban experiments expose a growing interest among urban stakeholders in city data,
and they have brought about an important lesson: fostering responsible and efficient use of
city data requires cities to start treating it as a new infrastructure asset. “Data is as important
as our road, railway, and energy networks and should be treated as such”. But numerous
sociotechnical challenges are preventing cities from embracing this change of paradigm.
In this transition process, collaboration represents one of the most relevant and complex
challenges; sourcing value from data demands cooperation among heterogenous stakeholders
representing different sectors, and breaking data silos is essential to ensure effective data
collection and processing operations. The Urban Agenda for the EU places emphasis on this
collaborative issue by describing a multi-stakeholder and multi-level governance approach as
pivotal to sustainable urban development. However, urban stakeholders tend to strive for
different (and sometimes conflicting) objectives, and personal motivations and interests may
become an obstacle to achieving a shared vision and collective sustainability goals, which
require finding a balance between open and proprietary data. In addition, to protect their own
interests, city stakeholders are not always willing to disclose or share their data with other
“Future success rests on the flow of data between systems”, but data sharing among multiple
sources is difficult to achieve. Additionally, well-known sociotechnical barriers include poor
data quality and lack of quality assessment tools; interoperability issues due to the lack of
standard metadata tagging techniques; difficulties in accessing data stored in privately
procured IT systems; vendor lock-in issues; legal and ethical issues, especially when handling
sensitive data; privacy disagreements; digital skill gaps; technology acceptance; and the
frequent failure of scale-up activities. In other words, it is not just about technology.
Rethinking cities as data infrastructures can help overcome these challenges and ensure that
urban data management practices are privacy-enhancing, rights-preserving, open,
decentralised, and transparent. But this objective can only be achieved by transforming current
governance structures, where a human-centric and systemic approach to the management of
data infrastructures is urgently needed, together with a solid collaborative ecosystem for
supporting its implementation.
Lessons from Europe
In this article, we will present the activities that a group of EU cities are implementing to
rethink how city data is collected, shared, and re-used for public good. In discussing these
cases, we will extract lessons that we deemed relevant for other cities that are working towards
shaping their own data infrastructure.
We will report on the experience of Lyon with MyData, an innovative approach to personal data
management, and discuss the development of Feel Florence, a platform that the capital city of
the Tuscany region has developed to provide its visitors with unusual urban itineraries and
reduce the pressure on key tourist locations. MyData and Feel Florence have been respectively
developed in the framework of the Digital Transition Partnership and Culture and Cultural
Heritage Partnership of the Urban Agenda for the EU.
The article will also feature projects funded in the framework of the Urban Innovative Actions
(UIA) initiative, which provides urban authorities across the EU with the space for
experimenting with and bringing to the forefront innovative solutions for sustainable urban
development. The projects covered as part of the UIA are Rennes Urban Data Interface (RUDI)
and Building Regulations Information for Submission Envolvement (BRISE).
Each case will be presented by mainly relying on the data captured during interviews with members of each project team. In total,
we conducted approximately 20 interviews. In the discussion of each project, the quotes that we introduced have been extracted
from these interviews.
MyData (Lyon, France)
The MyData project has unfolded though a series of interrelated urban development actions.
The initial phase started in 2016, with the pilot initiative called MesInfos. Developed by French
think-tank Fing, and Tubà, a living lab based in Lyon, MesInfos aimed to help residents of the
Greater Lyon area, La Rochelle, and Nantes Métropole to obtain control over their personal
data, which many different public and private organisations constantly collect and store. The
personal data that companies in the utility sector accumulate on water consumption, energy
consumption, waste management, and many other activities, for example.
Figure 1: The MesInfo experiment ©Fing
Reclaiming citizens’ right to manage their own personal data represents an attempt to build a
more transparent and trust-based relationship between individuals and their service providers.
On the one hand, individuals benefit from having access to their personal data, which can be
used to evaluate past actions and help them decide whether to modify their behaviours by
making informed decisions. On the other hand, by serving as data providers, organisations can
increase consumers loyalty by developing a better understanding of their behaviours, and they
can use this knowledge to design customised offerings that better respond to the existing
The pilot began well before the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was introduced
and, during its implementation, numerous organisations (such as MAIF, Orange, and Enedis)
shared the personal data of their consumers. This pilot has been instrumental in showcasing
the potential embedded in personal data re-use, and it has helped obtain buy-in from
individuals and organisations of the Lyon metropolitan area - an acceptance which was initially
difficult to achieve. Over two-thirds of the citizens involved in the pilot activities thought having
access to their personal data would be useful.
In 2018, at the end of the pilot project, Lyon Metropole decided to continue advancing the
MesInfos vision and run a second experiment called Self Data Territorial. Lyon Metropole
partnered with personal cloud service provider Cozy. Together, they developed a technological
infrastructure for supporting personal data sharing in the metropolitan area of Lyon. This
infrastructure serves as a Personal Information Management System (PIMS). It gives citizens
access to personal cloud spaces in which they can find their personal data, sourced from
various data-providing organisations.
“Citizens getting back their personal data from organisations is a
great idea, but they cannot do anything with it. The technological
infrastructure developed by Cozy provides functionalities and
services which help create value from personal datasets. Citizens
can see their data and they do not need to share it with anyone to
make sense of it. They can visualise their data on the Cozy cloud
and use it for their benefit.
After the set-up of the technological infrastructure designed by Cozy, Lyon Metropole has
created the following two services, which are currently being tested:
Ecolyo: A personal data service that allows citizens to visualize their gas, water, and electricity
consumption data, compare their data with an ideal consumption profile, and identify
opportunities for trimming their bills. The design of this service, which includes a gamification
functionality, builds on a transtheoretical model of behaviour change which aims to stimulate
eco-positive responses in citizens.
Pilote: A dashboard that citizens can use to follow administrative tasks and gather personal
data to make day-to-day administrative paperwork easier. The objective of this online service
is to help citizens to take control over their administrative tasks.
The MyData project has helped citizens in Lyon to experience and become aware of the
transformative power embedded in personal data. According to Cozy, one of the key factors
that helped increase public awareness is the business model that has been adopted; a “B2B2C
(Business to Business to Consumer) business model whereby the service of a personal cloud
is provided to citizens through trusted third parties in the case of MyData, this role is covered
by Lyon Metropole.”
This model puts the onus of data management on the metropolitan authority.
At this point in time, the role of the metropolitan authority is to grow the MyData ecosystem
by closely working with data providers in the city, encouraging their participation, and creating
standardised APIs for data access.
“Despite the presence of technologies and a market supporting personal data sharing, without
organisations willing to join the MyData movement and to give back personal data to citizens,
the MyData project will not work.”
This, in turn, sheds light on the several challenges that the My Data project in Lyon has faced
when trying to gain momentum. The project team highlighted “encouraging data providers to
share data and ensuring they meet technical standards” as critical challenges. In addition, they
also raised major concerns related to a “lack of business models to support data sharing in
local data ecosystems”.
RUDI (Rennes, France)
Delivering efficient and sustainable public services requires processing and drawing insights
from large volumes of heterogeneous data produced by a wide variety of city actors without
compromising on privacy and ethical considerations. RUDI aims to overcome this challenge by
developing a data-sharing platform for the metropolitan area of Rennes. RUDI is about
developing “a platform ecosystem to support data sharing and its fair usage between local
stakeholders, be it public or private actors, researchers, associations, or citizens”. The RUDI
platform has been imagined as a ‘data social network’; its ambition is to make a wide range of
personal data accessible to local stakeholders for reuse by encouraging data producers to
publish statistics and anonymised personal data, making them reusable, and giving citizens a
means to access and control their personal data, which is stored by different organisations.
Given their focus on personal data sharing, RUDI and MyData can be considered similar. Both
projects stress the importance of adopting a user-centric approach to data sharing. But RUDI’s
objective is also to stimulate interorganisational collaboration by enhancing business-to-
business and business-to-government data sharing. RUDI is expected “to host, give access to,
and manage consent of personal data, but also to serve as a system for private providers to
share their data and thereby collaborate with other organisations”.
Launched in 2019, after being granted €4 million in ERDF funding, RUDI is still under
development, but significant progress has already been made, especially in the technological
architecture underpinning the project. Envisioned as a federated approach to data sharing, the
RUDI platform allows data producers to share the metadata of their datasets on the portal,
while maintaining complete control over the datasets at a server on their end as opposed to
hosting entire datasets from different organisations in a centralised database. Any organisation
(data user) can then request to access personal datasets, upon viewing the metadata, by using
a consent-based mechanism. This approach contributes to creating a human-centric and
protected data sharing environment.
“RUDI is a platform that organises user authentication, gathers all meta-dataset from data
producers in one place, and organises the rules for publishing personal data.”
The RUDI platform is being designed as open-source, and adopts open standards. This
approach to development facilitates replicability and ensures data interoperability among the
different systems hosted by public and private organisations in the Rennes area.
A key milestone in the project has been the definition of the system architecture, which
required significant negotiation and collaboration between the project partners. Work on the
software development of the platform is currently in progress. Once again, this demonstrates
the pivotal role that multistakeholder collaboration plays in the development of urban data
infrastructures. RUDI has benefitted from a growing consensus among city stakeholders.
RUDI’s technological architecture will soon undergo beta testing. Meanwhile, the project team
is already transitioning to the next phase, where attention will shift from technological
requirements to data governance.
“RUDI is not only about designing a platform, but it is more about finding a truly innovative
governance model for local data.
Some of the key questions being asked as part of this process relate to the kind of legal body
that should be responsible for facilitating data sharing at a local level, the stakeholders that
should be a part of this body, who will define the rules to ensure wider stakeholder
participation, trust, and transparency, and whether this data governance body will be designed
as a data trust, data cooperative, or a data sharing pool.
As the project progresses, one of the next activities will be to develop new services, such as
dashboards or mobile apps, which can help citizens and organisations to visualise their
personal data and extract useful insights. To support this action, Rennes Metropole has
recently shared a call for interest which aims to widen participation by soliciting French-based
organisations to engage with the RUDI project even if they are not located in the Rennes
Finally, it is important to mention that RUDI has confirmed that building urban data
infrastructures is not just about technology. The challenges that the project team has been
facing are manifold, and some relevant examples include convincing beta testers to participate,
involving citizens associations, raising awareness of the project, navigating power imbalances
between large and small private sector organisations and local authorities, defining a policy
for data anonymisation, standardising data identifiers across city’s organisations, and
determining the lifecycle of the datasets uploaded on the RUDI portal.
BRISE (Vienna, Austria)
The constant influx of inhabitants has seen an increased demand for residential and
construction projects in the city of Vienna. The city administration has reported that around
13,000 building submissions are processed annually, resulting in high administration costs and
a long processing time for applicants. This scenario is further aggravated by technical and legal
regulations, which add layers of complexity to the assessment process of building applications.
The metropolitan authority has noted that assessing planning applications against Vienna’s
sociotechnical requirements by using the traditional paper-based approach has led to a process
duration of up to a year.
To cut the duration of the approval process and boost efficiency, the city of Vienna has decided
to reconfigure the entire building application process by leveraging information technologies.
The result is BRISE, a UIA project which aims to develop an online tool that construction sector
actors and planning authorities can respectively use to submit building plans in the form of
3D models by using Building Information Modelling (BIM) technology, and to verify the
compliance of such plans with existing building regulations using automated tools based on
artificial intelligence (AI) solutions. BRISE also brings new augmented reality (AR) functions to
ensure that a holistic visualisation of construction projects can be obtained without having to
read construction plans.
“BRISE changes the relationship between the planner and the urban
authority. Before, it was a one-sided relationship, where the planner
submits something and the authority reviews it and sends it back.
Now, it is more of a team where they work together, and the
feedback loops are much closer and smaller.”
A year into implementation, the abovementioned ambitions are progressively being realised.
BRISE has linked all relevant city planning and building stakeholders, and the project blueprint
has been defined. The BIM services have been outsourced, and a decision has been made to
adopt the Industry Foundation Classes (ICF) standard as a metadata standard; planners will
be required to use this standard when submitting their 3D models to the city authority. In
addition, the city authority is training the AI text analysis algorithm to build checking routines.
The objective is to produce a prototype for testing purposes and subsequent scale-up.
Two important key lessons have already surfaced from BRISE. The first: “you need to get the
specialised knowledge out of the head of a few individuals and bring it into the system, so that
someone else can use it”. In developing a reference model for BIM, the project team has
highlighted the high dependence on a single individual who is knowledgeable within the
planning authority, and thus responsible for translating existing paper plans into 3D models.
It remains to be seen how institutional knowledge transfer and training will be managed among
staff to ensure that similar data projects can be sustained in the long term, as well as the
completion of BRISE. Second, it is crucial to ensure the wide involvement of frontline workers;
those who were going to use the end-product of BRISE were involved from the very beginning,
because they knew the context in which such a product would have to operate. This knowledge
has proven indispensable.
The project team has also highlighted some relevant challenges. On the technical front,
developing the AI-driven text analysis algorithm has represented one of the most difficult
tasks: “How do you make AI recognise ambiguous information in law texts?”. There are also
collaborative challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has made it difficult for
project partners to develop a mutual understanding. This, in turn, has led to delays on the
progress of the project. In addition, during our interviews, the project team highlighted another
important concern: cultural shift. Planning authorities are required to accelerate the transition
to digital. Notably, this process involves behavioural change, technology acceptance, and
upskilling activities for staff, who are required to transition from the traditional paper-based
and manual work to an AI-based process.
Feel Florence (Florence, Italy)
The Metropolitan City of Florence has a rich cultural heritage, which has always bolstered
tourism in the city, with nearly 13 million tourists per year prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Until recently, providing tourism-related information to visitors has been a task handled
independently by local authorities and major tourist centres in the city. As a result, Florence
and its surroundings have been serviced by multiple databases powering different websites
and mobile applications. Such a fragmented and siloed approach to information dissemination
has proven challenging, because it fails to provide accurate city-wide information and manage
real-time tourist flows in the city.
Figure 2: The Feel Florence app ©City of Florence
Coordinated by the Metropolitan City and Municipality of Florence, the Feel Florence project is
expected to help overcome this challenge, thereby addressing the specific action of ‘smart use
of data to manage tourist flows’, which is laid out in the Culture and Cultural Heritage
Partnership. Feel Florence is a digital application; its objective is to introduce a data-informed
approach to tourism management in the Florence area. This digital approach helps develop
tourist dispersal strategies for managing overcrowding in popular tourist attractions and
directing tourists to less visited areas, balancing movement flows within the metropolitan area.
Feel Florence has two main building blocks. The first component is a front-end, which
comprises a website and a mobile application. What makes the mobile application distinct from
the website is that it provides real-time alerts concerning crowding in nearby areas. The second
building block is the back-end; a centralised data storage solution powering both the website
and mobile application. Data related to tourist information points (videos, images, and events
in the city) is sourced from the 41 municipalities belonging to the Metropolitan City of Florence
and stored in this centralised repository system. This data stream is in addition to the
information regarding website and application users and the data used to identify crowded
areas in the city, currently sourced from public Wi-Fi hotspots and mobile GPS locations.
Developing such a centralised portal for regional tourism-related data collection and
dissemination has required a significant collaborative effort among public authorities. Feel
Florence truly is “a project of cooperation”.
Now approaching its second phase of development, the project team intends to enhance the
real-time monitoring functions and advance the predictive analytics capability of the platform.
The team has also expressed interest in examining how to ensure interoperability between the
Feel Florence platform and Florence’s open data portal. Efforts will be oriented towards
increasing the participation of stakeholders located in territories around the city - to better
manage tourist flows in and out - and advancing data literacy within the municipalities to
ensure broader accessibility of the service.
Policy implications: future priorities
The four projects demonstrate that alignment between technical developments and
governance frameworks is essential to realise the value creation potential of urban data.
Cooperation among city stakeholders is pivotal to ensure the effective functioning of urban
data infrastructures, as is the need for a collaborative governance approach that aligns
heterogenous configurations of actors with a multitude of roles, data types, activities, and
interfaces. This is a key lesson surfacing from our analysis and discussion with the project
teams. As confirmed in current academic and practitioner-oriented debates on urban data
infrastructures, however, more investment and effort are required to increase our
understanding of collaborative dynamics in city data projects. Despite this being a factor of
the utmost importance, we still know very little.
MyData and RUDI also confirm the need for business models supporting business-to-business
and business-to-government data sharing in cities. In this context, policy developments will
play a key role in supporting research into the different types of data sharing and governance
models emerging in different cities, identifying means to encourage the wider participation of
private actors, and incentivising data sharing practices. The results of the Horizon 2020 project
Ruggedised are particularly relevant in terms of business models for urban data platforms, and
can help guide policymakers and business innovators.
The cases we discussed also confirm the importance of dealing with difficult questions around
the selection of governance frameworks and organisational models, like data institutions and
data collaboratives, which are required to support democratic and responsible data sharing
practices at the city level. A call for clearer recommendations on how to develop legal
frameworks for data governance models, like data trusts, has emerged. On this matter, we
invite engagement with research activities on emerging models of data governance and the
politics of urban data conducted by the Digital Economy Unit of the Joint Research Centre.
Other relevant EU initiatives include the movement that bring many cities together
in their digital transformation, in particular scaling up local data platforms, contributing to EU
data spaces and developing powerful Local Digital Twins helping mitigating climate change,
notably Rennes and Florence. The Intelligent Cities Challenge (ICC) from the European
Commission also supports 136 cities in using cutting-edge technologies to lead the intelligent,
green, and socially responsible recovery, notably through the digitisation of public
We also recognise the need for policies that ensure data sovereignty in public procurement
contracts to overcome vendor lock-in issues and ensure accessibility to citizens’ personal data
held in private IT systems. This will require more strict regulations around ethics, privacy, and
open standards, to avoid interoperability challenges.
... Data sharing among industry partners has been indispensable to implementing this smart city project: the more private entities join this collaborative project, the larger the dataset and the possibility of generating public value. However, encouraging private companies to pool their data and engage in same-sector collaborations has proven challenging, putting the project at risk (Gupta and Mora, 2021). ...
Full-text available
This Connexions article links collaboration in smart city projects, a contemporary and undertheorised social challenge, with theories on assemblage thinking, organisation, and public value creation. Using this multidisciplinary lens, we critically analyse smart city theory and expose the inability of prevailing collaborative models to properly account for the complexities of real-world practices. Building on our observations, we formulate a new and more robust theoretical perspective on smart city collaboration, which helps us trigger new research questions that focus on procedural, relational and diversity factors previously ignored.
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