Understanding Hamburg through open data

Dr Nicole Schubbe, Project Manager with the Agency for Geoinformation and Surveying of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg, believes that smarticipate can help people to better understand the decisions made by the local government and provide a greater insight into city planning processes.

Seagulls fly high above the buildings of Hamburg, adding to the major German city’s maritime feel. Situated close to the North Sea, the city is capitalising on its water front heritage, with the new development HafenCity fully embracing the River Elbe. With a population of around 1.7 million people, Hamburg is Germany’s second biggest city, with only the capital of Berlin larger.

At present, the City of Hamburg informs citizens and invites feedback on planning processes through the publication of notices in newspapers and posters in public areas. Despite the limited attention such posters receive, participation events around urban planning still attract upwards of 500 people, indicating an interested population.

“We hold quite a lot of participation events,” says Nicole. “We have an online tool for participation, but we want to improve this to give people the chance to participate better. We want to be able to use offline and online methods of encouraging people to participate, and to see what is possible from a technical standpoint.”

Hamburg is required to solicit citizen input for formal planning processes by law, but Nicole says that beyond the legal requirement it is necessary to gain citizen feedback to ensure that there is a “citizens’ city.”

“The citizens have a voice and they can freely express if they like or don’t like something, and the city has the possibility to take this information on board and use it when making their decision.”

Making data open

Collecting data is not new in Hamburg, and the city has a large pool of information that it can draw from. Nicole is pleased with the amount of data collected by Hamburg, but believes that the city “can still collect plenty more.” She is positive about the potential of open data to drive economic growth and political transparency.

“I think it’s a good thing to give citizens a chance to use the data for business purposes, as well as for general knowledge. If you want to understand political decisions, this data can help to guide you.”

The data could also be presented in a more user friendly manner says Nicole: “For citizens without geo-competence, it is not very easy to use. Everyone can read PDF files, but the city uses international standards, such as GML (Graph Modelling Language) files, which are not particularly easy for most people.”

Overall, Nicole is positive about the impact technology is having on participation: “Technology makes it easier to get real-time feedback. I hope this aspect will be good for participation and will encourage people to participate more than they did before. Gamification is also an exciting tool – you can drive participation by going further into the gaming direction. Particularly for young people, technology makes interaction more attractive.

“For older people it is the opposite. If they don’t have a smartphone and can’t scan the QR code, they are kind of cut out from receiving the information. The city should be aware of this and should approach each group differently. It is also a good idea to have a helpdesk to support those who want to participate through technology that may be new to them.”

Political challenges

Over the last months, Hamburg has focused on defining its urban planning scenarios, which will be used in the smarticipate prototype. Originally the transformation of an old brewery into a series of apartments was seen as one area in which the smarticipate platform could be trialled.

“For the brewery, I asked the planners for data on how many flats they plan to construct, how much of the area will be used as green space and so on, and they said that they don’t have these numbers yet. In the end we decided not to proceed with this area.”

As a result, Hamburg will now have only one urban planning scenario – the planting of trees in urban areas.

“Now we have the main focus on the tree use case. We are trying to improve it and make it useful for the people who will work with it down the line.”

Looking to the future

Although smarticipate has not been widely presented in Hamburg, already a great deal of constructive feedback has been received.  “It has been positive, but not just in the sense that everything is nice and fine, but the groups that have seen it had ideas and reasons as to why something might not work – we included these comments in our concept.”

The next step is to hold a Smartathon in Hamburg on 8 October 2016, in which citizens will be invited to help shape the smarticipate platform. “I hope that we get a lot of ideas on how we can improve urban planning scenarios, and that people become more interested in participation and the project itself,” says Nicole.

Reflecting on why citizens should engage with the smarticipate project, Nicole says that those who take part will benefit from seeing how local governments make decisions: “Smarticipate will provide citizens with a greater insight into city planning processes, and will allow them to put forward their own ideas for consideration.  By putting residents in touch with city planners, such as through the Smartathons, they can be sure that their questions will be answered by the right people.”