ESRI Urban Observatory- the right model for city crowdsourcing?

This month ESRI made an interesting move into the field of global city data with the launch of Urban Observatory (TM). The site has some great interactive visualisation ideas with simultaneous mapping of three interchangeable cities, linked navigation and indicator selection. It provides an intuitive interface to explore the diverse forms of world cities-


Furthermore this ambitious project is intended to be an extensible platform. Jack Dangermond (billionaire founder of ESRI) and Richard Saul Wurman (founder of TED with a long-standing interest in city cartography) discuss in the introductory video how they want many more cities to join in, to crowdsource city data from around the world, using the ArcGIS online platform.

So is this project going to be the answer for all our global urban and smart city data needs? Well I think despite the great interface, as a city crowdsourcing model ESRI’s urban observatory is not going to work. But it’s interesting to explore why, particularly in relation to the bigger questions of whether the open city data revolution is going to be truly global and inspire a new era of urban analysis and comparative urban research.

ESRI’s site states that “information about urbanization does not exist in comparative form”. In reality comparative urban analysis is a growing trend across many sectors, from international organisations like OECD, EU and UN (including the original UN Habitat Urban Observatory); to environmental organisations like ICLEI and C40; to economically focussed organisations like the World Bank and Brookings; to global remote sensing providers like the USGS; to major commercial data producers in transport and telecoms; to the many urban academic research centres around the world (including the two London based centres I’ve worked for, CASA and LSE Cities).

Global cities data example- GaWC Network at Loughborough
Global cities data example- GaWC Network at Loughborough
CASA- deprivation in UK cities example.
CASA- deprivation in UK cities example.
Brookings MetroMonitor- comparison of US cities' economic performance
Brookings MetroMonitor- comparison of US cities’ economic performance


LSE Cities- over a decade exploring comparative urbanism
LSE Cities- over a decade exploring comparative urbanism

There’s a rich and growing field of data providers and analysis techniques to draw on for comparative urban analysis. Indeed the ability to gather and analyse urban data is absolutely central to the whole Smart City agenda. But there are clearly many challenges. What do cities gain by opening up their data? Who then owns the data and controls how it is presented? Who selects what data is included and excluded?

I believe the natural platform for civic data (and subsequently for the international comparison of urban data) will be an open platform with wiki features to encourage civic engagement. This provides the answers to the above questions- citizens gain from better access to data and institutional transparency; citizens own the data and have a say in what is included and how it’s presented. This is the model for current successful open data sites like the London Datastore, where anyone can access the data, and Londoners can request new datasets (backed by freedom of information legislation). Unfortunately the governance situation is of course much more complicated for the international comparison of cities, and this has limited progress.

As the world’s leading provider of GIS software, ESRI are in a strong position to integrate global datasets, and have clear commercial interests in amassing urban data for their clients. But it’s much harder to answer questions about who owns and controls data in their urban observatory project. Arguably this will limit the number of cities volunteering to take part, and limits the project’s ability to respond to the diverse demands of global cities and their citizens.

A further huge challenge in comparative urbanism is in developing the right analytical techniques and indicators to answer key urban questions. This will inevitably require more sophisticated analysis tools than a set of thematic maps, and needs to draw on the many research strands developing the most relevant analytical tools.

Overall there will be some exciting competition in the coming months and years in the expanding market of international urban data integration and visualisation, with different models from commercial, government and academic contexts. ESRI’s urban observatory is an innovative project, and should stimulate further advances.