Soft data gives color to hard numbers.

When I was just starting out as a student of urban affairs and politics and then as a researcher, I found it very exciting to address residents outside on the street. Nearly two decades later, I know that many city professionals—from civil servants to designers and developers—also find it difficult to stay in touch with what’s happening on the street. This communication is of course essential, as it provides the professional with a form of information that is important for substantiating decisions and designs. This is “soft data”, which stands for smart city hard data.

Linda Zuiderwijk (photo by Janita Sassen)

But let’s be honest, even after two decades on all kinds of streets and parks, sometimes I just can’t speak. I have encountered painful situations in my work that make me question whether I have chosen the right career. For example, in a study on the use of public spaces, I noticed a box a while back, where a girl was being bullied while I was there — luckily, the current administrator intervened. What does this situation say, for example, about a girl’s perception of safety? You will find that only in a conversation with that girl and with the manager.

This event made me realize that the perception and experience of public space, and the relationship between residents, is also important information for the development and management of public spaces. Don’t just tell us the numbers on vandalism, nuisance, or burglary—the experience certainly matters, too.

As a city professional, you can therefore encounter situations on the street and among residents that you would not have preferred to face, but which are part of the reality of the city. It is often these situations that cannot be captured in the forms of big, open data, which are now among the most important sources of information in town. These street voices and images also belong to the data – admittedly “soft data” – that help substantiate decisions, design new public spaces or craft policy.

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So asking the population good questions and looking closely at the environment in all its aspects is a challenge. Researchers like myself and my former colleagues from the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Center for Daring Cities, which focuses on projects with an emphasis on citizen and government perspectives on big, open and linked data, helps professionals who look outward. Bringing together professionals with residents and visitors on the street – where all kinds of digital, but also social developments are reflected – has the absolute added value of being able to feed the smart city with soft data as well. In addition, the necessary reflection on the impact of politics – or rather, the absence of politics – on the smart city also takes place on the street.

Thus, smart public space benefits from city professionals who can read both hard, large, and open data, and are informed by the sounds of the street: soft data that gives color and context to hard numbers.

Linda Zuijderwijk is an urban sociologist who researches sociospatial issues faced by municipalities, developers, housing associations and more. She specializes in public space issues and provides customized advice based on solid research.

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