Open data helps Melbourne keep cool, leading global moves

By David Donaldson

January 28, 2015

The City of Melbourne has begun publishing data on light, humidity and temperature levels online as part of efforts to study the impact of canopy cover on urban cooling. It cements Melbourne’s position as Australia’s leading open data city.

The published figures, part of a three-month data collection and testing trial, come from sensors deployed at Fitzroy Gardens and Library at the Dock in Docklands. It’s hoped the information will help the council’s Urban Landscapes branch to “better understand and communicate the impact of canopy cover for urban cooling”.

In 2012, the council formed a partnership with ARUP and the University of Melbourne for a three-year Australian Research Council Linkage Grant for “Creating a Smart City through Internet of Things”.

The research aims to “develop new systems and algorithms that can help City administrators remotely monitor, understand and interpret real time information on urban environments.”

The City of Melbourne is leading the way among Australian cities in giving the public access to the data it collects. Its open data website, launched in May last year, already features a range of datasets, including extensive parking records, a property development activity monitor and a tree shade map.

It also publishes information on energy consumed and greenhouse gas emissions from its own assets and a portion of its supply chain.



The release is part of a concerted push by the city towards becoming “open by default”. In November last year the council voted to adopt an open data policy to ensure data will be:

  • For open use;
  • Free;
  • Available in accessible formats and easy to find; and
  • Released within set standards and accountabilities.

The policy also commits the city to ongoing engagement with the community, seeking feedback on issues such as which datasets should be made available.

The council estimated in July 2014 that, thanks to datasets already published, staff would save at least 700 hours annually on reduced efforts at responding to requests for data.

In 2013 the council accepted an invitation to join the World Council on City Data as a founding member. Membership of the WCCD will put Melbourne among the first cities to implement the world’s first international standard for recording city data, known as ISO 37120.

The voluntary standard sets out 46 core measurements participating cities will use in the collection of data, with the aim of providing a set of statistics to accurately compare quality of life across cities.

Areas covered by the standard will include economy, environment, education, fire and emergency response and transport, among others.

Introducing a standardised set of measurements is no minor issue — a 2008 study by the Global Cities Indicators Program found that out of over 1000 indicators collected by eight cities including Toronto, São Paulo and Montreal, only three were uniform across the board.

Australian cities lagging

Melbourne undoubtedly leads the rest of Australia — hardly anything on Brisbane’s datastore is not easily available elsewhere, and Sydney doesn’t have a dedicated open data portal at all.

Some data relevant to cities is published by state governments and the ACT, including information on roads and other infrastructure.

But Australian cities’ open data projects largely remain in their infancy compared to several American cities — even Melbourne’s range of datasets are relatively limited.

New York and Chicago are often cited as examples where committed mayors have helped push a huge range of data into the open, including lobbyist registers, graffiti complaints and cleaning reports, complaints about potholes and broken lights, citizen ratings of services, problem landlords and car accidents.

The City of Palo Alto, home to Stanford University and many of America’s tech giants, even publishes full details on the salaries of its own employees online, as well as a list of uncashed cheques.

Apart from offering a broader range of datasets, these cities also tend to publish more up-to-date information — a lot of it live — vastly increasing the utility of many datasets. Citizen-generated data such as complaints or ratings, an area into which Australian cities have not yet ventured, help keep government transparent and can highlight systemic shortfalls in services that may not be picked up while locked away in government agencies.

Craig Thomler, managing director of Delib Australia, says that open data efforts here have so far been relatively ad hoc.

“… they don’t yet understand how open data can empower residents and support communities.”

“Generally in Australia these initiatives have been driven by officers within councils, not by mayors and councillors, which has meant they are generally run on a shoestring under the radar on a small scale without extensive buy-in or support,” he told The Mandarin.

“This is a failing of councillors rather than councils — they don’t yet understand how open data can empower residents and support communities. This often represents the demographics of councillors, along with the grey politics often playing out at council level, resulting in a significant number of corruption issues across Australian councils — why would they open up data!”

It doesn’t help that Australian cities tend to be divided among many city councils, meaning data from individual local government areas tends to be fragmented and less useful.

Mega-cities like Chicago and New York appear to have a size advantage when it comes to the costs of open data (New York City has a larger population than Victoria) — though this hasn’t stopped Palo Alto, with a significantly smaller population than the City of Melbourne.

“What we need are standards on how data is collected and published driven at state or federal level, but the politics works against it,” said Thomler.

“When you consider we don’t even have consistent information on planning permits or ways to report road and graffiti issues across states, or the country, it really becomes too hard and user-unfriendly for residents, and means that individual councils who want to do good things often can’t realise economies of scale by working together in a region.”

More at The Mandarin: Open data ranking still a closed case in Australia, study reveals

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