Generative Data Centers for Smart Cities: Characteristics and Considerations

New data sources are providing opportunities for policy makers, planners, and scientists to make more accurate analysis and predictions, and to explore cities' dynamics in new ways.

Synchronous data collected through traffic sensors allow planners and transportation engineers to examine people's travel behavior, perceptions, and attitudes in ways which they could not be explored a decade ago.

The great value of these new data sources has been widely discussed. However, cities are still struggling with finding, refining, analyzing, and deploying these data. This blog introduces data centers as systems that can help planning and policy organizations more effectively collect, organize, and use new data generated from or produced by various formal or informal resources. LA GeoHub is a good example of one of these.

What should be considered in designing these data centers to make them more efficient and feasible for incorporation into current policy processes and smart cities strategies?

With the rapid growth in availability of data, cities are required to sustainably use new data sources based on their current resources and future expectations. Current research shows that most cities still are not well equipped to effectively use available data in their decision and policy making (Afzalan, 2015).

Generative data centers can respond to the cities' needs by providing them useful data sources that can be used, regenerated, and reused in different contexts and by various organizations and stakeholders. Data centers should be generative to advance bottom up processes and produce "change driven by large, varied, and uncoordinated audiences" (Zittrain, 2006, 1980).

Building on generative systems theory (Zittrain, 2006), data centers should have the following characteristics:

Characteristics Description
Capacity for leverage
  • Data centers should make data collection, management, and analysis faster, easier, and cheaper.
  • The available data should be usable by several departments in a City and various stakeholders with different needs or policy focuses.
  • Data centers should serve and engage different departments while fostering their interoperability.
  • Data format should be ready to be merged with the other available data sources.
  • Data centers should be adaptable to be used for various tasks and projects, such as comprehensive planning, disaster management, or traffic control. Data should not be strictly categorized or overly refined. Data should be cleaned enough to allow and promote creative deployments.
Ease of mastery
  • It should be easy for different stakeholders, agents, and departments to use services provided by data centers. Data centers should not be only usable by highly skilled scientists. They should also provide opportunities for staff with lower level of technology literacy to access and use the available data.
  • Data centers should be simply accessible to various departments or communities. Cities should consider providing access to data center services for citizens, scientists, professionals, businesses, and industries.

Making data centers adaptable, easy to use, and accessible, helps different departments, organizations, and communities collaborate more closely to creatively unlock the power of urban data and use them in their decision-making processes, businesses, or research. On the other hand several issues should be considered for data centers to work efficiently with low possibility of failure. Cities should consider:

  • Potential privacy and security issues of providing access to data centers' services for citizens, scientists, professionals, and industries.
  • Potential lock-in effect of the data centers. Cities should ensure that the centers are backed up, supported, and constantly monitored. Hacking the center should not create a big shock on the function of cities' departments.
  • Constant update of the system, based on users' needs and desires. Departments' needs in a city constantly changes based on their projects' progress or new requirements.
  • Effective facilitation of users' interaction with the center. Facilitators should be assigned to not only respond to users' needs, but also engage with them in dialogue to discuss their desires and find creative solutions for using the data.

While data centers can help greatly with unlocking creative policy solutions for cities, they may result in disasters if not managed appropriately. Discussion around data centers, as city infrastructure systems, is still at its infancy and requires detailed analysis and exploration in different cities and contexts to define feasible strategies for their deployment.

Further research is required to explore who should be responsible for managing data centers and how. Because of budgetary limitations, cities and local governments need to come up with creative solutions for developing and managing the centers.


Afzalan, Nader. 2015. Participatory Plan Making: Whether and How Online Participatory Tools Are Useful. University of Colorado Denver. Retrieved from

Zittrain, Jonathan. 2006. "The Generative Internet." Harvard Law Review, 119 (7), 1974–2040.

About the Author

Nader Afzalan, PhD, is the visiting professor of urban planning and geodesign at the University of Redlands. Afzalan is also the chair of APA's Technology Division.

Top image: Kaiser Permanente Center for Total Health installs an Urban-Pyro Infrared Pedestrian Counter on the Metropolitan Branch Trail as part of a program to model pedestrian movement throughout Washington, D.C. Photo by Flickr user Ted Eytan (CC BY-SA 2.0).

September 28, 2016

By Nader Afzalan