“Data as a Service” in a city context

The covid-19 pandemic has illustrated the importance of data to decision making and to support action, particularly by public authorities. The requirement to understand a rapidly changing context, such as changes in use of public transport or parks, and the need to provide new services, such as rolling out vaccination programmes or providing support to people self-isolating, have accelerated the use of data.

Private sector companies and individuals have become more willing to share data that can help support governments (still with some constraints). These shifts have provided a fresh impetus for cities to make the most of the data they have, or can get hold of, to support their own activities and those of their communities.

New York city photo, by Redd

Photo by Redd on Unsplash

As Emma shared last week, the Bloomberg Philanthropies City Data Alliance will identify 100 cities from across North and South America that are the most sophisticated at using data to make policy decisions and propel them to an even higher standard. Public Digital will be helping cities who already have advanced data projects to become more data-driven, digital organisations. The essence of this transformation is to shift cities from thinking of data as something they might publish simply for transparency, towards implementing what we call “Data as a Service”.

For us, “Data as a Service” is an approach to governments stewarding and providing sustainable and equitable access to data that supports decision makers and innovators inside and outside the public sector.

In this blog post, we’ll explore some of the nuances of this concept, and how it encourages cities to move beyond approaches oriented around open government data inventories and portals.

Defining data as a service

The “as a service” phrasing has been applied to multiple things over the years. Software as a Service is the idea that you access hosted software on a subscription basis, over the internet, rather than running it on your local machine. Infrastructure as a Service means using cloud platforms such as AWS rather than maintaining your own servers. Mobility as a Service means renting out cars, bikes and scooters when you need them, rather than owning them yourselves. If you look at the Wikipedia entry for “Data as a Service” you can see how this phrase aligns with other “as a Service” phrases, describing cloud-based data solutions such as data hosting or analytics.

But this isn’t really what we mean within this work. Rather, we are using “Data as a Service” to capture a set of ideas about the role of data in the interaction between city governments – particularly their data teams – and the people and organisations they serve.

Data services should be like digital services

The primary shift we want to make is to draw on lessons from the provision of government digital services and apply them to data services.

  • Data services need to meet user needs, which means recognising the importance of (data) user research in understanding those needs, and designing a whole service (for example, including support and community), not just data provision.

  • Data services need to be sustainable and scalable, which means having permanent multidisciplinary teams and sustainable budget lines. They should not be one-off projects that fall by the wayside when political interest moves on.

  • Data services need to be developed iteratively, particularly as requirements shift, new data and technologies become available, and norms around data use change.

“Service” here has obvious connotations of digital services and service design. With a bit of adaptation, recognising the slightly different context, we should be able to apply those same principles and standards to data services.

Data should be available on demand

The “as a service” highlights the ability to get the thing you need (software, infrastructure, mobility) when you need it. Data being available on demand, enables application developers to provide up-to-the-minute flood warning information, researchers to analyse the geographic equity of filming permits, or older adults to find services designed for them (these examples all come from New York City Mayor’s Office of the CTO 2021 Impact Report). Note that this is distinct from the software platforms that hosts or analyse data being available as a service, as in the Wikipedia article: we are talking about the data itself being available when you want it and with minimal overhead. “Service” here has undertones of both self-service and of API services.

Providing data should be a public service

We think governments should provide data to support both their own operations and those of others outside government. This way of thinking about data stems from at least some of the definitions of Government as a Platform.

Supporting the operations of government includes supporting leadership-level city decision making being more data-driven and data-informed – a trend evident across various types of organisations. It also means supporting the day-to-day operations of public services within and around the city, such as health and care, transport or emergency services. Creating and maintaining shared data assets, even across organisational boundaries, can bring efficiency savings to the public sector (this has been one of the motivations for London’s City-wide data approach).

But data is also something that people and organisations (both private and third sector) that live and work in cities need, and that government has a unique role in providing. This idea of the public sector providing data that our modern economies and societies depend on ties into broader notions of understanding data as a new form of infrastructure.

“Service” in this context might conjure notions of enterprise services, public service and shared services.

Raising ambitions

We believe cities have a vital role to play in the provision of data. But as at the national level, the first generation of city data portals had more of an “open by default” philosophy than one oriented towards “publishing with purpose”. They have struggled to be sustainably maintained, leading to some of them gaining a reputation for containing out-of-date and error-ridden datasets. We can do better.

Hence, for us, “Data as a Service” is not really about technology, but an approach to governments stewarding and providing sustainable and equitable access to data that supports decision makers and innovators inside and outside the public sector. It is an approach that requires commitment, and ambition. And we’re very excited to explore it further as we work with cities through the City Data Alliance.

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