The Value Proposition of Circular City Data for Economic Development GovLab Unveils Work at NewLab’s Circular City Public Showcase

By Stefaan Verhulst, Andrew Young, and Andrew J. Zahuranec

The Circular City researchers (from left to right): Caroline McHeffey (Columbia University), Stefaan Verhulst (The GovLab), Andrew Young (The GovLab), Arnaud Sahuguet (Cornell Tech), and Nilda Mesa (Columbia University). Photography by Anna Anderson.

The Circular City researchers (from left to right): Caroline McHeffey (Columbia University), Stefaan Verhulst (The GovLab), Andrew Young (The GovLab), Arnaud Sahuguet (Cornell Tech), and Nilda Mesa (Columbia University). Photography by Anna Anderson.

When Brooklyn’s future leaders want to figure out how to grow the local economy, they won’t need to rely on intuition. Instead, they can turn to insights generated from “circular data.” Data about how pedestrians move through public spaces. Data about when and where Brooklyn’s streets become choked with traffic. Data about how others use the spaces around them.

On Thursday, March 7th, we shared how these insights can be used to improve people’s lives. Through New Lab’s Circular City Public Showcase, The GovLab unveiled its research into the concept of circular data and its relevance for economic development.

Circular Data

Conceived by New Lab, the Circular City program studies how circular data — the collection, production, and exchange of data and business insights between urban collaborators around a shared set of inquiries — can solve challenges facing the Downtown Brooklyn area and globally.

Focusing on the data provided by a handful of startups — Numina whose IoT sensors can map pedestrian and car traffic flows; CARMERA whose machine-vision software can provide block-by block information on pedestrian density; and Citiesense whose platform provides information on neighborhood mobility, development, and resiliency — New Lab sought to explore ways Brooklyn could get smarter about improving urban life.

And it turned to the City of New York’s research community for help.

Led by Columbia University’s André Corrêa d’Almeida, Columbia, Cornell Tech and New York University’s The GovLab took action. Over several months, the groups engaged with the start-ups, New Yorkers, and one another to study circular data’s potential. While Cornell Tech evaluated the value of circular data for mobility and Columbia assessed its role in resilience and sustainability, the GovLab assessed its role in economic development.

Economic Development

CircularCityCover_031319The City of New York is thriving based on some metrics. Unemployment is low. Job creation is up. Companies see the City as an attractive location to base their operations.

Still, serious difficulties remain. Old industries are in transition. Neighborhoods are changing. Long-established businesses and residents find it increasingly difficult to stay afloat amid an influx of new arrivals and increased property prices.

Into this environment, the City needs new ways to foster inclusive economic growth.

The GovLab took three steps to assess what role circular data could play in achieving this goal.

First, it engaged with stakeholders across Downtown Brooklyn — city agencies, local businesses, and other experts — to identify the area’s economic development priorities. These conversations, in turn, informed an exploratory process about different use cases — value propositions — that might help the City achieve these priorities.

For instance, the City might use circular data to foster community wellness and stimulate wage growth, two of the priorities identified. It might also apply circular data to catastrophic event preparedness to improve and maintain infrastructure.

Second, we sorted these value propositions both thematically and by their individual facets.

In the first part of this process, we found the value propositions fell into five possible categories based upon how they created economic value. These were:

  • Situational Analysis: The use of circular data to better understand, often in real-time, trends in city activity and the geographic distribution of various phenomena (e.g. population flows and new business activity).
  • Cause-and-Effect Analysis: The use of circular data to better understand possible correlations and causalities as well as what variables make a difference for what type of problem.
  • Prediction: The use of circular data to enable new predictive capabilities for policymakers and others, allowing them to be more proactive and to assess future risks, needs, and opportunities.
  • Impact and Value Assessment: Circular data used to rapidly assess the results of their interventions to iterate on products and programs when necessary.
  • Ecosystem Support: Circular data’s capacity to make visible previously obscured inter-dependencies and their impacts on issues relevant to the economic health of the city, such as social cohesion at the neighborhood level.

In the second, The GovLab developed “Data Value Canvases” to better understand the different facets of these use cases. This framework allowed us to explain the context of a particular value proposition, identify beneficiaries, highlight potential enabling and disabling conditions as well as a potential monetary value.

The Circular City Data Value Canvas. Graphic by Anirudh Dinesh, The GovLab.

Though targeted at the three specific startups, the canvases are also useful as a means of assessing the value of any dataset or use case in the circular data ecosystem.

Finally, we reflected on the enabling conditions, challenges, and risks associated with the use of circular data and provided several recommendations for practitioners to maximize the impact of circular data on economic development objectives.

The work for this last component relied on an adapted version of The GovLab’s Periodic Table of Open Data. Developed as part of an in-depth exploration of open data’s global impact, The Periodic Table provides enablers, challenges, and risks related to uses of open government data.

Through the research and analysis that informed this paper, we found most factors identified as instrumental for open-government data use cases also play important roles in the circular data context. Indeed, the five central categories included in the Periodic Table still hold relevance: Problem and Demand Definition, Capacity and Culture, Partnerships, Risks, Governance.

As for recommendations, the GovLab identified several for data practitioners to consider:

  • Focus on City Data Collaboratives, not just Data Supply. Data does not exist in isolation. The success of circular data projects will depend on collaboration among various stakeholders, as well as collaboration with data scientists and topic or sector experts (“bilinguals”).
  • Explore new and innovative Business Models for leveraging circular data.
  • Consider the creation of Internal and External Intermediaries. To increase the value of circular data, a wide range of internal and external intermediaries can potentially add value, credibility, and rigor to data collaboratives.
  • Develop Safe Sandboxes for Innovation and Experimentation (vs. Procurement). Circular data projects need to be mindful of some of the important risks associated with even the most successful projects.
  • Focus on Resource Scarcity (among both the Demand and Supply). Circular data projects can often be initiated with minimal resources and goodwill among all parties, but require funding and additional resources to sustain themselves and scale.
  • Define Metrics and Gather Evidence. To be systematic, define and measure what success looks like. Although there are some early, often muted signals pointing to the impacts of circular data for economic development, the field is still largely built on a limited understanding of how circular data creates demonstrable positive outcomes.

Next Steps

The GovLab, together with the other partners and research teams, is already thinking about how to further develop the concept of circular data. It is also integrating it into its current work and projects.

“It’s important to make partnerships systematic, sustainable, and responsible,“ said Stefaan Verhulst at the Public Showcase. “[For both circular data and data projects] what we really need is a new human infrastructure. We’ve worked on the concept of data stewardship, individuals who can understand the value of data and extract it in a responsible manner.”

The work builds upon The GovLab’s work seeking to supporting and encouraging the use of data collaboratives, a new form of collaboration, beyond the public-private partnership model, in which participants from different sectors — in particular companies — exchange their data to create public value.

Through its Data Stewards Network The GovLab will host more conversations on the importance of circular data and data collaboratives and develop tools and frameworks to accelerate the responsible use of data for good.

In the meanwhile, we would be delighted to receive your ideas and comments. Please send your suggestions, reading recommendations, and questions on these topics to us at

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