Data Analytics

Visualization and Open Data in Helsinki

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by Tom Erickson and Susan Spraragen


In the fall of 2011, a team of six IBM experts spent three weeks in Helsinki as part of IBM’s Smarter Cities Challenge program. The program brings together an interdisciplinary team to focus on a challenge faced by a city. In the case of Helsinki, the City wanted to make the most of two opportunities. One was that Helsinki had just begun to implement an open data strategy to make city data available to its citizens. The second was Helsinki’s selection as the 2012 World Design Capital, a biennial event that promotes cities that are using design to improve their social, cultural and economic life. Helsinki saw the potential for synergy between these two opportunities, and thought that IBM’s expertise in managing and visualizing data might help make its data more accessible to citizens, and provide interesting examples for the World Design Capital events.

The project began with a non-stop series of meetings with stakeholders: politicians, city employees, private companies and ordinary citizens. Our aim was to understand the issues that concerned citizens, and develop relationships with stakeholders who could help us. We spent the first week assembling a picture of Helsinki’s open data strategy and getting a sense of its diverse and vibrant design culture. As we moved into our second week, we began working with local stakeholders.

We had set ourselves two tasks. The first was to develop concrete examples of ways in which visualization could make city data more accessible to Helsinki’s citizens. One point we emphasized was that visualization is not just about producing cool pictures. A good visualization is a catalyst that can encourage thinking, discussion, contribution and interaction, and this means that it needs to be part of a larger system that supports this activity. We spent a day at Aalto University’s Design Factory, where we asked thirty locals – students, faculty, technologists and ordinary citizens – to develop ideas for systems that created or used open data. We drew on these ideas, along with those developed in other meetings, to develop a portfolio of design examples that ranged from visualizing the workings of the bureaucracy, to systems for participatory planning, to public displays of the city mood.

Our second task was to develop a roadmap for Helsinki’s open data strategy. Here we had a firm foundation to start from, as Helsinki was already off to a strong start. We laid out different engagement and business models for the open data strategy, and discussed ways to support the evolution of an open data ecosystem. We also discussed ways in which the move to open data would transform the city government by creating new roles, fostering standards and encouraging transparency.

We hope it is evident that throughout the Challenge, our work was carried out in collaboration with an enormously vibrant and talented array of people from Helsinki. While a global team can bring expertise from the outside, ultimately technology is applied in the context of the local culture, and that means that there is no substitute for collaboration.

Tom Erickson is an interaction designer and researcher in IBM Research. His focus is on improving communication and collaboration among large numbers of people.
Susan Spraragen is a service design researcher in IBM Research. Susan focuses on enabling the investigation of the relationships between service providers and service consumers.

Further Resources:

VIDEO: Interview with Ville Peltola (IBM), Petra Snellman (IBM) and Ville Meloni (Helsinki Region Infoshare) about SCC Helsinki, open data and smarter cities (in Finnish)

City of Helsinki Economic and Planning Centre announcement

IBM Smarter Cities Challenge Helsinki Report

Global Open Data Programme Makes Recommendations for Helsinki

Helsingin Kaupungin Avoimen Datan Hyodyntamisraportti Julki

Helsinki ja IBM Puristavat Avoimesta Datasta Hyotya Kaikille

Maailmanlaajuisesta avoimen datan ohjelmasta suosituksia Helsingille

Recommendations of the IBM Smarter Cities Challenge Programme completed

How Does the City of Helsinki Utilise Open Data?

Avoimen datan päivä Helsingissä

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