How ISO standards for city data are starting to make an impact
Few have been more at the centre of the rising global discussion around cities and data than Patricia McCarney, the president and chief executive of the World Council on City Data.
McCarney created the council, housed at the University of Toronto, almost three years ago in order to shepherd an indisputably ambitious project: To create a definitive set of 100 data indicators that would allow for point-by-point comparisons of cities around the world. The result is a framework that allows Buenos Aires, for example, to see how it stacks up against Boston or Barcelona on measures of energy, finance, health and many other dimensions.
Officially these data standards are known as ISO 37120 — it’s a collaboration with the International Organization for Standardization, the Geneva-based agency that develops global standards on products, processes and services. As dozens of cities pilot the new ISO framework for cities, two more standards are under development on “smart” cities and urban resilience.
So what are cities doing with all of this new data? This week, WCCD is convening a summit in Dubai to look in depth at this question for the first time. Representatives from many of the cities using the ISO standard will share their experiences. Citiscope will be covering the event.
In this interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, McCarney is joined by WCCD Executive Vice President Helen Ng and Director of Communications James Patava.
Carey L. Biron: Where are we now in the story of data and urban development?
Patricia McCarney: This idea of a data revolution in sustainable urban development — we’re at an amazing point. When we started talking about city-level data, it really wasn’t that popular two years back. But what we’re finding now is that the increasing recognition of city-level data — for cities to use, for national governments to use, but also increasingly now on the global agendas by U. N. organizations and others — there’s this really strong data revolution going on for city-level data, which we hadn’t seen.
When we started, there was some interest. The cities understood that we need standardized, comparative data for cities to talk to each other and have peer-to-peer learning. But we didn’t have the same feeling coming from senior levels of government and global [bodies] around city-level data. But now, there’s this movement. You might call it a data revolution, but it’s a city-level revolution, I would suggest, whereby all of those bodies, all of those levels of government — local, national, global — are all now seeing the importance of city-level data.
Q: What are some of the most important conversations coming out of that process right now?
Patricia McCarney: Just about a month ago, the United Nations Office of the Secretary General held a meeting. There were only about 25 people in the room. It was a small group, but it was around the importance of cities for all of the different global agendas the various United Nations organizations are examining. WCCD — we were the voice of city-level data, but everyone else was talking about the city-level agenda to drive the 2030 Agenda. So we were the data voice in the room, and there was so much traction and interest and support. Two years ago, we would have never seen this, so this is an example where our work on city-level data can actually start to drive and inform and provide support to these global agendas, whether it’s the climate agenda or the Sustainable Development Goals.
Q: The U. N. also held a first-ever summit on data in January in Cape Town. Did anything come out of that event and the related Action Plan that you feel you’ll be able to build on and that cities will be able to build on?
Patricia McCarney: Yes, absolutely. The WCCD was invited to be part of a major panel there, and we were represented by James. I think he was the single voice for data at the city level, and what we’re seeing is that now, with good data, cities can take up a position on the global stage to say, “Here’s our target. Here’s our monitoring system in terms of the SDGs.” So it’s not just nations — cities can be positioning around the targets for the SDGs, and that hadn’t happened before.
James Patava: For the first time, you actually see local levels of government mentioned in the [outcome] document. I’m not sure the [U. N. Statistics Division] necessarily knows exactly where they’re going to go with that, but the fact that we were there, and there was so much interest in what I was saying around cities, makes it clear to me that these statistical agencies are starting to think about it, and so is the U. N. That really marks a turning point, where the local is starting to factor into some of the national and international decision-making and thought processes.
Q: Let’s turn to the WCCD. What’s been the council’s scope of work?
Patricia McCarney: We published ISO 37120 in 2014, and the same day, we established the World Council on City Data. We then invited 20 ‘foundation cities’ to pilot the certification protocol for ISO 37120, and then to start reporting on 100 indicators under that standard. ISO 37120 is the first and only standard that has been published with ISO indicators for sustainable cities.
So that was the beginning, and then we’ve been testing it and rolling it out to cities. We’ve moved now from 20 to about 50 or 60 in the certification pipeline. As we tested it with the 20 foundation cities, we knew there would be a need to revise and tweak, and add and subtract some of those indicators in the 100. So, that’s what we started in the revision process.
We also opened two new ISO standards. One is 37122, Indicators for Smart Cities. The other is ISO 37123, Indicators for Resilient Cities. That is what we call the family of standardized indicators for cities. They should all be published within this year.
Q: What did you learn in working with those 20 initial cities about what was and wasn’t working?
Patricia McCarney: One of the major parts of the revision was coming, especially from Germany and other European countries, around some of the indicators on energy for cities. They were asking for a few more indicators, so it wasn’t just electricity but other sources, and it wasn’t a particular delivery system but different options. They wanted a deeper dive on energy because it was so front and centre for their cities in the European system.
Helen Ng: We added a few more on social housing, which was very important to many of the European cities. We also added some on affordable housing and commute times. We also added a bit on culture — there was a bit of debate on this, because culture was kind of difficult to measure for a lot of cities and difficult to standardize. But we felt it was needed, so a couple of indicators were added on that. In addition, some of the indicators’ definitions were fine-tuned.
Q: We hear so much about data-related capacity concerns, particularly at the city level in developing countries. What have you found in this regard while working on the 37120 project?
Patricia McCarney: One of the biggest parts of our next steps is to start to consider how best to support cities in Africa, Asia and Latin America that require training and support to get their data up to the same high calibre that we’re seeing across all the other cities reporting off 37120. We’re now actively reaching out to global partners to help support cities in Africa and other regions, so that they’re in the same discussion zone as a Toronto or a Los Angeles.
Q: Could interventions like that offer a lasting capacity boost for city officials?
Patricia McCarney: Yes, we’re already actually testing that, and we’re seeing that it can be replicated. But not only is it replicable, it’s also enormously possible — which we weren’t sure about, but we can say with really strong conviction now.
We just went through a process in India with three cities. So this can be scaled now in Indian cities, and I can’t think of a better place to test it because we know that there were real challenges on the city data front in India. But we had all three cities certified. In fact, Pune was certified platinum —- the highest level of certification that WCCD offers. This means that Pune is able to report on between 90 and 100 of the indicators, and have that third-party verified to our audit program here. And this happened in only about three months.
Q: So how are ISO cities using this new data?
Helen Ng: That’s going to be the focus on a panel at the event in Dubai. We’re calling this the city panel, and it is really the first time where we’re bringing together our cities to have this universal conversation around the data — the actions behind the data. So what are cities doing in terms of achieving, say, a high recycling rate? In this, Toronto is very interested in learning from the city of L.A — to learn about their initiatives and innovative processes around recycling.
James Patava: In Johannesburg, under former mayor Parks Tau, they built the ISO 37120 indicators into their 2030 development plan. They took those indicators and embedded them into their city-wide plan, and that was something that we thought was absolutely incredible. It’s really taking those indicators and driving them home, and making them useful for a city. It’s my understanding that there’s an interest in replicating this idea across South Africa.
Q: Let’s talk about the other two ISO projects that WCCD is spearheading on smart cities and resilience. Why did you feel these were necessary — and are these three the ones you feel are most important right now?
Patricia McCarney: Right now, these are the three most important because they have actually evolved from cities asking for these other indicators. We take our lead from the cities telling us what’s important to them, as opposed to what might be coming down from on high from different levels of interest. Over the course of the ISO 37120 discussions, the main questions coming from our cities were, ‘Well, what about indicators on how resilient we are to a Hurricane Sandy?’ Or, ‘What about questions around ICT and smart-city lighting and all of these other issues? We’re under a lot of pressure to start to monitor and measure and make decisions on quite important investments around smart cities, so can you help us to think about how to measure that?’
As a result, even before we finished 37120, we started to draft definitions and methodologies around resilience and smart cities. On resilience, we started gathering suggestions, and within two weeks we already had 690 indicators from all of the participating cities! We would say, ‘What are the risks? Is it mostly climate?’ But many of them were saying it’s not just climate — it’s also economic resiliency. When things collapse, what happens to us? How do we measure and better prepare for economic resilience? Then there were questions around cyber security. So, we started to build out a framework for 37123 on indicators for resilient cities at the table while we were still publishing 37120.
Q: So what happens now in terms of vetting these proposals — how do they become accepted standards?
Patricia McCarney: This year they will go out for international ballot. There will be questions on definitions. There will be questions on methodology. Requests for revisions from Brazil, from South Africa. All of the member countries and voting countries will send comments, and we will disposition those comments every three months. Then we go out for a final vote, and hopefully we get clear majority, and then it goes for publication in Geneva as the final draft.
Q: Are you expecting that process to be contentious at all?
Patricia McCarney: You know, it’s so technical, that it doesn’t really become a solidified discussion to the degree that it is outside of ISO. It’s less political and highly technical, and as a result you actually get very workable indicator sets that cities can answer — and will answer, because they’ve been driving what’s in and what’s out of that standard. And sometimes, what’s out of that standard is as important as what’s in it, because if cities are saying, ‘This indicator will not work. It is not possible to report on this indicator,’ then the ISO takes that seriously. It’s not being developed by the senior level, by the government or international organizations — it’s being developed by city leaders.
Q: To circle back to where we started, how do you see the potential interconnections between the ISOs that WCCD is spearheading and the monitoring of progress on the Sustainable Development Goals, on the New Urban Agenda, on the Paris Agreement?
Patricia McCarney: Absolutely — we spend a lot of time every day thinking about this. We really, really do hope the ISO standards will help to support those global agendas. We’ve just mapped the ISO 37120 definitions and methodologies of all 100 indicators to each and every one of the SDGs. That mapping was just presented to the United Nations Sustainable Statistics Division — it was global, national, local all in the room for the first time. So we’ll be producing a report showcasing the first 30 to 50 ISO 37120-certified cities, showcasing the alignment of ISO 37120 to the SDGs. This is where we’re moving right now — the alignment of data, and this mapping exercise is the first step in that.