Division Chief for Housing and Urban Development at the Climate Change and Sustainable Development Sector of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB)
Digital technologies bring big increases in data flows. They also bring more capacity to process data to plan, monitor and assess policies that co-create innovative solutions involving government, academia and companies in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Over the past decade, municipal governments have become more aware of the power of data to make service delivery more efficient, make it easier for citizens to access information, improve planning processes or assist in forecasting and managing risks, among others.
Transformation and challenges ahead
In a continent where cities are home to more than 80% of the population and one in four people live in an informal settlement, the Covid-19 pandemic exposed deep inequalities in connectivity. This lack of coverage has severe developmental impacts on education, employment opportunities and other areas.
In response, digital transformation has accelerated over the past three years. Sensors, cameras, smartphones and other connected devices are generating more data. Big data poses challenges to public administrators, requiring new approaches to data management.
Capturing, storing, analysing or sharing data at scale implies access to sophisticated infrastructure frameworks and the adoption of digital capacities — still emergent for many local governments. Careful data selection — relevant and unbiased — can help manage the influx of information but is not sufficient.
Big data poses challenges to public administrators, requiring new approaches to data management.
Some cities are rising to the challenge. The Brazilian city of Recife is creating the Public Policy Assessment and Data Science Center to advise decision-makers across municipal departments to base public policy on data-based evidence. Finally, data privacy and the ethical use of information are also unchartered territories requiring new data governance and protection frameworks. This is not only an issue for national governments — only 12 of 32 countries in the region have cybersecurity strategies — but also municipal governments exposed to new cyber-attacks.
Big data for civic use
In the complex context of tradeoffs, cities must ensure that the process of digital transformation keeps citizens at the centre — not only as beneficiaries but also as main actors.
Beyond our support for policy development and training at the IDB, we also help local governments co-create open code tools (Open Urban Planning Toolbox) that help us define access to services, urban growth, housing deficit or changes in an informal settlement’s footprint. This way, our cities will be places where practical urban tools are adopted by considering knowledge, replication and scaling opportunities. Our cities won’t just become smarter — they will become more livable.