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City Data Matters: Lessons For India, Canada And The World

01/27/2017 10:25 EST | Updated 01/27/2017 10:25 EST
Hiroshi Watanabe via Getty Images

India is undoubtedly on the rise and so are its cities. One-third of India's current population lives in urban areas, and this growing group of urban citizens contributes close to two-thirds of India's GDP. Further, the urban population is expected to double, to approximately 800 million by 2050 -- and India's cities are starting to feel the strain. Challenges of poverty, infrastructure deficits, air quality, education and safety of women are key amongst the rising agenda for action in Indian cities.

The Toronto-based World Council on City Data (WCCD) is now tackling these challenges worldwide, helping cities and countries around the world to develop a culture of data; driving a culture of innovation for a more inclusive and sustainable prosperity -- the essence of smart cities and smart countries. As the WCCD launches a bold new initiative in India, these lessons are also applicable to Canada and globally.

In June 2015, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi announced that a new initiative would be launched to develop 100 (now 109) smart cities around the country, making them citizen friendly and sustainable. The Smart Cities Mission is geared towards transforming India's urban landscape, while allowing cities to leverage the latest ICT developments. However, there is one overriding concern: a city-level data deficiency across the country. High-caliber data is needed to inform smart investment, and then monitor and benchmark performance on an annual basis, following these investments.

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India's prime minister Narendra Modi, Jan. 10, 2017. (Photo: Amit Dave/Reuters)

As in many countries, service delivery, infrastructure and environmental data in India are fragmented and in silos across multiple levels of government. However, uncharacteristic of an increasingly highly educated country with significant economic growth -- much of the data for Indian cities is embedded and difficult to access and impossible to compare on a city-to-city level across states, let alone nationally or internationally. In other words, India seemed primed and ready to test ISO 37120 -- the first international standard on indicators for city services and quality of life.

ISO 37120, published in 2014, was developed beginning in 2008, with input from over 250 cities and 80 countries, incubated by the Global Cities Institute (GCI) at the University of Toronto and operationalized by its sister organization the World Council on City Data (WCCD).

The WCCD visited India in 2015 to assess data capacity and potentials, and challenges aside was convinced that cities in India, with targeted support, could achieve ISO 37120 certification. It is possible to accomplish the transformation of Indian cities into the smart, sustainable, resilient, inclusive and prosperous cities of tomorrow -- but this change needs to be data-driven, and city-level data was a prerequisite. National census data (carried out each decade) becomes outdated quickly with city populations expanding rapidly. ISO 37120 is an annually reported set of 100 indicators that ensures timely monitoring and assessment.

The ISO global seal of approval allows Indian cities to draw comparative benchmarks with other global peer cities.

Having already certified close to 40 cities globally across 25 countries for ISO 37120, the WCCD has come to recognize the challenges of building city-level data. However, with India, a new approach was taken, and the WCCD entered into a partnership with the Tata Trusts to pilot ISO 37120, resulting in the City Data for India Initiative.

Surat, Pune and Jamshedpur were identified as ideal pilot cities, and work began. Data collection -- facilitated by PwC India -- commenced in the second half of 2016. While challenges would certainly arise, it became apparent that high-quality data existed -- it was just embedded and needed to be formulated into indicators, guided by the definitions and methodologies provided in ISO 37120. What needed to be further incubated was a culture of data and data-driven decision making at the city-level.

Following the data collection and verification process, these three cities, in just a few short months, all achieved WCCD ISO 37120 certification. Pune obtained the highest level of WCCD certification -- platinum -- with Surat and Jamshedpur both certified at gold. All three cities have quickly taken their places amongst the WCCD global network of data-driven cities.

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Tata Trusts Chairman, Ratan Tata, and Patricia McCarney, President and CEO, World Council on City Data, at the launch in Mumbai on January 20. (Photo: Indian Express)

In just over a year, the GCI/WCCD has proven its thesis. ISO 37120 is both relevant and applicable to Indian cities and has the potential to drive smart, sustainable, resilient, prosperous and inclusive development throughout the country. The ISO global seal of approval allows Indian cities to draw comparative benchmarks with other global peer cities and will inform the data-driven decision-making that is needed to accommodate India's rising population and build prosperous and inclusive cities. The partnership with the Tata Trusts serves as an invaluable model for local engagement and will help to continue to drive city engagement with WCCD ISO 37120 certification in India. Most excitingly, the WCCD is now inviting all Indian cities to come on board, to become WCCD ISO 37120 certified and to join the WCCD's global network of cities that supports city to city learning.

Pune, Surat and Jamshedpur are now empowered with globally comparable, standardized and independently verified city-level data. WCCD's ISO 37120 high-caliber data positions these cities as global leaders for city to city learning. It allows cities in India, Canada and globally to confront global agendas such as climate change, measuring progress on the United Nations SDGs and the 2030 Urban Agenda.

In the Indian context, it allows Indian leaders to address rapid urban growth. The data supports prime minister Modi's Smart Cities Mission and drives evidence-based decision-making to solve the myriad challenges faced by Indian cities. As the WCCD continues to expand worldwide, we remain committed to supporting cities across the globe to develop a culture of data, which drives a culture of innovation for a more inclusive and sustainable prosperity. All of which is the very essence of smart cities and smart countries.

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