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Design meets open data

Smarter Cities Challenge helps Helsinki citizens benefit from open data

The IBM team (L to R): Yaeli, Spraragen, Jou, Erickson, Alvar, and Bak
The IBM team (L to R):
Yaeli, Spraragen, Jou, Erickson, Alvar, and Bak
"The people of Helsinki see democracy as a top priority—alongside design, of course" stated Peter Bak, scientist at IBM Research – Haifa, and one of six IBMers who just returned from participating in the Smarter Cities Challenge for Helsinki. "Open data is a basic necessity for democracy because it means that any citizen has the right to access data held by the government."

But the real question was: how could Bak and his colleagues use their expertise in information sharing, design, and visualization to help city officials make information more publicly accessible to the people of Helsinki?

"Open data, visualization and design—this was the magic blend we were looking for" noted Avi Yaeli, another Haifa researcher who was part of the Helsinki team. "Finding ourselves in the world design capital was a great place to start exploring how we could use visualization to turn data into information, which in turn will spark a public conversation that can bring about change."

A peak into Helsinki

IBM's Smarter Cities Challenge sent a team of six experts to Helsinki with the ultimate mission of providing recommendations on how visualization can be used to make the city's open data publicly available—thereby enhancing citizen participation and democracy. For Helsinki, openness means transparency, global responsibility, and innovation—expressed through design.

The capital of Finland, Helsinki is home to about half a million citizens. A total of about one million residents live in the greater Helsinki area, which includes Helsinki, Espoo, Kauniainien, and Vantaa. Historically, Finland was part of Sweden and was an autonomous Grand Duchy within the Russian Empire from 1809 to 1917. It has been part of the European Union since 1995.

Visualization of city activity in Helsinki
Visualization of city activity in Helsinki
Why visualization? Aside from an emphasis on democracy, Helsinki is world-renowned for its design and focus on the aesthetic. With many famous designers, including the world acclaimed Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto, the city is bursting with stunning architecture, open spaces, and natural lakes and streams.

Bak and Yaeli, both researchers from IBM's lab in Haifa, Israel, were selected for their experience in visualization and open data. Bak is an expert in information visualization and visual analytics with a special focus on geographic movement data. He develops interactive exploration and analytic tools for experts in fields like transportation and logistics. Yaeli is an expert on Gov2.0 and open linked data, and is currently involved in the development of a scientific open data infrastructure for the EU. His work also focuses on the consumption of open data for visualization and analytics.

"We had lots of meetings, lots of saunas, and of course, lots of food," laughed Bak. He went on to explain that the sauna is where people gather to talk and relax, but that's also where the important decisions are made. After meeting with the mayor and with local designers, the team got down to heavy duty brainstorming in the 'war rooms' at the hotel.

Bringing about change through openness

Open data refers to the free access and reuse of government data—but does not include private information like personal medical data, or other sensitive information. The concept of establishing a portal for open data is fairly new. The US and the UK have been championing this idea for a while, and many other countries are following, so citizens can start benefitting.

The IBM team was confident they could make the data accessible to citizens through visualizations. Their ultimate goal was to provide the mayor and city hall with examples of how turning data into visual information could express an idea and ultimately encourage citizen engagement.

After three weeks of intense work, the team produced a final report with specific recommendations on how the city could grow a sustainable ecosystem for open data, and how visualization can be used to turn data into information into action and drive citizen engagement. Just a few concrete examples include using symbols like a tree to explain how the budget is divided up, projecting the city's consumption of electricity onto a building's facade, or using touch screens to get feedback in places where people congregate.

"We started off with boring looking data," explained Yaeli. "But when you can take the data and transform it into a visual story that helps people discover and understand new ideas, it's an exciting way to get citizens involved."


Press release and IBM report

Read the city of Helsinki's official press release about the Smarter Cities Challenge.

Read the IBM team's official report.

About IBM's Smarter Cities Challenge

Smarter Cities Challenge is a three-year, 100-city, US$50 million grant program that furnishes expert advice from IBM consultants to progressive municipalities.

Read more about the Helsinki Smarter Cities Challenge.

Did you know?

A few fun facts about Finland:

  • Linus Torvalds, the famous software engineer best known for creating the Linux kernel of the popular open source operating system, was born and raised in Helsinki.
  • In 1906, Finland was the first nation in the world to give full suffrage—the right to vote and to run for office—to all citizens, including women.
  • Helsinki was named the World Design Capital for 2012
  • The world's first Freedom of Information act was enacted in Finland in 1776 (under Sweden)

Read more facts about Finland...

Your IBM expert

: Director of Public Sector SPIGT, IBM Sales & Distribution, Public Sector

: Discovery Science and Visual Analytics Research, IBM Research

: RSM: The design of novel forms of on-line communication and collaboration for Smarter Cities, IBM Research

: STSM, RSM, Technical Architect - T&I, Office of the CTO, Business Analytics, IBM Software Group, Cognos

: Service Design Researcher, IBM Research

: Master Inventor; Open Data and Visual Analytics, IBM Research