Federal and local governments around the world are expected to spend $475.5 billion on technology products and services by 2019. From New York to Chicago to Rio de Janeiro, metropolitan centers around the world are looking for new ways to be “smart” – to become more sustainable, improve the efficiency of public services and citizens’ quality of life.

Forward-thinking civic and business leaders are experimenting with massive amounts of data – and the tools and technologies to compile and examine it – in order to improve how efficiently and effectively cities are managed.

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But the explosion of data is not without obstacles. According to the research firm, Gartner, it may take a full decade or more before the maximum utility of government open data is realized. 

So-called, “smart cities” require more than data alone – they require technologies to collect and analyze huge amounts of information and they require cross-sector solutions that can be scaled to size. “Smart cities” require leaders to use Big Data for good – to make better decisions, drive smart growth and benefit society as a whole.

The true smart cities will use Big Data to enable the preemption and prediction of urban issues, improving efficiency and quality of city services from healthcare to traffic management. If used properly, and in conjunction with tools that deliver actionable insights, smart cities will transform the lives of urban residents.

The timing of this transformation couldn’t be better. The number of people living in cities worldwide is expected to increase to 6.3 billion by 2050 – up from 3.6 billion in 2010. To meet the demands of growing urban populations, more and more cities are taking up data-smart initiatives. In fact, at the state and local levels of government, alone, spending on information goods and services is projected to grow at a 3.3 percent rate between now and 2019, increasing to $70 billion.

The initiatives vary in scope and focus, but the drive is the same – improve efficiency, save costs and generally improve the urban experience.

In New Orleans, for example, leaders are responding to ongoing fiscal challenges with NOLAlytics – a unit spanning multiple departments focused on using data to improve the city’s services. The unit’s first project aims to reduce fire causalities and save costs. The Targeted Smoke Alarm Outreach program – a door-to-door smoke alarm campaign leverages data from the Fire department, Census and American Community Survey and the New Orleans Fire Department to prioritize outreach in neighborhoods that are least likely to have smoke alarms.

Meanwhile in Singapore, leaders are building a network of sensors to collect and analyze data at bus stops, public parks, traffic intersections and other areas to improve public services with the goal of making them not only more responsive, but anticipatory of needs.

And the General Service Administration has figured out a way to save $13 million annually in energy costs by using a proprietary data algorithm to monitor 180 buildings for malfunctioning exhaust fans.

At Experian, we are also embracing the potential of Big Data to improve society and support smart cities. We are using data assets to glean insights and help consumers, financial institutions, healthcare organizations, automotive companies, retailers and governmental organizations make more informed and effective decisions.

For example, with rising insurance costs, deductibles and copays, some people struggle to afford the out-of-pocket expense that can come with seeking medical treatment. Because of this, some consumers decide not to seek treatment, which could have negative effects on their health and overall well-being. Experian works with hospitals, medical offices and clinics to provide unique data and analytics to provide insight into each patient’s financial situation. By leveraging healthcare-specific predictive models, Experian enables healthcare organizations to easily and efficiently determine which patients qualify for financial assistance programs or help them set up a payment plan that fits within their current budget.

And in Orange County, California, for instance, Experian worked with local officials to verify the county’s list of 260,000 inactive voters – those who had not cast a ballot in the last four years – against our extensive database of known addresses. Once Orange County had the proper addresses they were able to send out post cards for residents to either update their contact information or confirm that they had moved out of the county. The process saved the county $80,000 in the next election.

And in our DataLabs, teams of data scientists with experience in machine learning and analytics are using data for good in bold new ways, developing data-driven solutions and pinpointing previously undetected strategies. By leveraging technologies, such as Hadoop, Spark, Hive and advanced machine learning techniques, we are able to crunch through massive amount of information and discover new insights to help local businesses and governments understand their customer and constitution base to provide better services.

For example, the DataLabs is working with social media and de-identified data to better understand and predict consumer activity.  By analyzing this data, our DataLabs can identify the generalized daily travel patterns of consumers, which can in turn be used in combination with the government’s open data to improve public services, from transportation planning to land use and public safety in large crowds.

With the abundance of data, we have the potential to improve the efficiency of government and build smarter cities.  To achieve such goal, we need to encourage data sharing, standardization of data, and the application of the data science to use Big Data for good and truly transform urban life.

Chen is the vice president of Analytics and chief scientist for Experian’s North American DataLab.