Digital technology: Data-driven urban development

With more data being generated it is the right time to debate and put forward a plan for data driven development. The time to bring all civic actors and the government together to solve existing and future problems through advancing digital technology has come

Everyday we are contributing towards the process of data generation through the digital technologies we use in our daily life. Every day, 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are generated through the Internet, so much so that 90 per cent of all data has been generated in the past two years alone. This is due to the increasing use of social media, online platforms and rapid urbanization. Use of social media has increased so much that there are more than 901 million active Facebook users around the world. Every second 4,000 tweets are generated and 10,000 payment card transactions are made globally. But, all this data and information being generated is worth very little unless translated into insights.

Researchers believe that the contribution and use of data and information are more from cities where there is reach of digital technologies the most. The challenge is to harness such data and information generated for the development of future cities. Use of data and information generated requires intense processing such as cleaning, analysis, visualization and interpretation.

A United Nations study of urban population in the 1950s shows that 30 per cent of the total population of the world live in urban areas. But, in recent times the population has increased so fast that it is expected to be 66 per cent by 2050. Today, the growth of urban population is a major concern for policy makers as the responsibility is added to improve the lives of billions. The rise of urban areas comes with the technological advancement and maximum use of data and information. The challenge is to improve quality of data and information that are being generated and make use of acquired data in city planning, among other things.

There has been no significant transition in Nepal from agriculture towards information and technology sectors which results in the drifting of the major population of the country from rural to urban areas.This lag has also largely fueled international migration. A study of urban cities in 2013 by the World Bank shows that Kathmandu Valley is one of the rapidly growing urban areas in South Asia with 2.5 million people and growth rates of 4 per cent a year.The century-old framework and inexperience of bureaucrats to deal with data driven technology has left Nepal behind other countries. This has affected citizens of Nepal from enjoying the opportunities coming from digital technology.

According to the 2011 census, 17.2 per cent of Nepal’s population currently have access to the Internet which is a huge increase from 1995 when there were less than 50 users nationwide. According to Nepal Telecommunication Authority (NTA), the users of mobile phones have reached 27.07 million which is almost the country’s entire population.

In recent days, the government of Nepal has initiated a few leads to address some of the civil problems with the use of digital technology. The Government launched a taxi receipt system in Kathmandu Valley to address the existing problem of overcharging and fraud. Likewise, in December, 2016, Lalitpur Sub-Metropolitan City introduced a mobile app called ‘Hamro Lalitpur’ to help citizens track the location of garbage collecting vehicles.

Since today’s social, economic and environmental challenges require a strong understanding of data and technology, the government’s new initiatives will have to engage people, the public and private institutions in every possible field for making it reactive, cost effective and transparent.

The initiative like Hello Sarkar is a benchmark to address citizen’s query using crowd-sourced data. However, there should be an integrated plan in various levels of government to study the frustrations and suggestions of the public through digital technology.

The use of the crowd-sourced open data after the 2015 Nepal earthquake was highly successful. The open data compiled by ‘digital humanitarians’ through various digital platforms was transferred to volunteers and government agencies working on the ground, responding to the needs of earthquake victims. Many of the rescue, damage assessment, relief distribution tracking, and reconstruction monitoring projects were made possible with the use of open source data.

The advancement of digital technology has created a huge gap between the common citizens and bureaucrats. The level of understanding of digital technology among the common people is improving day by day, whereas the bureaucrats are still working with traditional approach of governance. The young generation are coming up with innovation and new experiments which has already created tremendous pressure on the government to switch their out-dated practices into digital practices. Ever-growing urban problems, such as traffic congestion, unplanned urban settlement and pollution are exacerbated by outdated government monitoring systems which fail to implement data driven solutions. With more data being generated it is the right time to debate and put forward a plan for data driven development. The time to bring all civic actors and the government together to solve existing and future problems through advancing digital technology has come.

Khatiwada is working at Kathmandu Living Labs