Despite the raw, rainy November afternoon in 2015, Ger Baron, Amsterdam’s chief technology officer, was radiating good feeling. Earlier in the day, city officials had finalized an agreement to share their traffic data with a major technology company. In exchange, the company would provide algorithms that Baron’s team could use to alleviate congestion on Amsterdam’s crowded streets.
Baron hoped this arrangement would trigger a cascade of civic-boosting partnerships between the city and outside companies, aimed at making Amsterdam a truly smart city. Data and analytics were crucial features of Amsterdam’s eight-year-old Smart City initiative, a public-private partnership that had produced more than 80 pilot projects across the city touching many areas of urban life.
Baron himself had led the Smart City initiative prior to his position as the city’s CTO. One activity his team had helped organize was an effort called Apps for Amsterdam, which challenged app developers to take publicly available data and build apps to improve the lives of residents and visitors. The initial projects weren’t quite what Amsterdam had envisioned, however. The first app developed had been a public toilet finder, which drew chuckles. Another early app had pointed out the best places to burgle houses, by triangulating data about public street lighting, the most expensive houses, and distances from police stations.
The burglar app was a sign that the city needed to refine its approach to using its troves of data to address city management issues. Partnering with companies to find data that met shared interests seemed like a fruitful path, especially for addressing traffic congestion on Amsterdam’s Reformation-era core city streets. Many of these are barely wider than a truck and are shared by bicycles, cars, pedestrians, trains, and buses. Amsterdam is a world leader in encouraging alternatives to car travel and in its electric vehicle infrastructure. The city also draws tens of millions of tourists a year to its vibrant fairs and floating flower markets, red-light district, cannabis coffee shops, and world-famous museums.