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Open data in public private partnerships: how citizens can become true watchdogs

The following guest post is from Jonathan Van Parijs at the Where’s My Villo? project.

The context: bike-sharing schemes, public private partnerships and open data

After Paris, Barcelona and a growing number of cities around the world, Brussels inaugurated its bike-sharing scheme in May 2009, called Villo!.

By far the most convenient way to travel short distances, and part of local governments’ initiative for promoting eco-friendly transport, these schemes have proven to be tremendously popular. Due to local authorities reluctance to take on the burden of cost and management themselves, more often than not, the large- scale bike-sharing schemes are being run through public-private partnerships with advertising companies. As the outdoor advertising space in cities is near saturation, these companies are natural candidates for the schemes, where they already operate the ad-financed bus stop shelters and other billboards. Bike sharing schemes are a strategic way for them to increase their presence in cities. Villo! is operated by the French advertizing firm JCDecaux.

The company finances the infrastructure and operates the bike sharing scheme, in exchange for advertising space on the bikes themselves and on billboards at the stations.

The context of this specific public-private partnership is very appealing: citizens get access to an extremely practical service, at little cost to them or to local authorities. However, as the popularity of the scheme increased, Villo!’s usefulness became increasingly tainted by the all too frequent unavailability of bikes and parking spaces, to the extent that many stations became virtually unusable. Villo! just wasn’t doing its job of reallocating bikes often enough.

Given that the public-private partnership JCDecaux has established with Brussels through Villo! generates both revenue and reputational capital for the company, it is our feeling that JCDecaux has a special responsibility to ensure that the service is run efficiently, rather than trying to get away with the bare minimum.

Where’s My Villo?

Villo! makes real-time data available about the status of each station on their servers. This is to help users find out which stations have bikes or free parking spaces. Where’s My Villo?, launched in September to pressure JCDecaux into doing a better job, uses this data to shed light on the magnitude of the problems. By pulling data from Villo!’s servers every five minutes and writing them to a database, Where’s My Villo? computes a daily list of the worst places to find a bike or park one. The website also allows visitors to see how well the station(s) they use most frequently perform, and report their own encounters with problems (from finding a bike to technical problems at stations).

Open data: how citizens become true watchdogs of public-private-partnerships

Though we will need more time to determine whether JCDecaux have really improved the scheme, they have publicly announced they will be rolling out a number of improvements, among them, reshuffling of bikes at night.

So what happened?

First, JCDecaux’s claims aimed at minimizing the magnitude of the problems could no longer be taken seriously. Second, overwhelming support from Villo! users and over 700 people on Facebook meant the initiative channeled a widening feeling of discontent, which could not be ignored. Finally, and this may be open data’s most important contribution, it relieved local authorities from being the sole monitors of the partnership and gave them additional leeway to demand improvements from their private partner. Though we have been told there had been complaints from citizens about the scheme’s performance, the authorities were not in a position to quantify the extent of the problems. And as signatories of the partnership, were in the tricky position of managing the relationship with their partner and needing to defend a project criticized by the political opposition.

Though anecdotal in many ways, Where’s My Villo?’s experiment shows that open- data allowing citizens to monitor the performance of a service of which they are the final users should be required in all public-private partnership contracts. Down the line, this may even play an ex-ante role by discouraging companies who intend to deliver frivolous services from chasing public-private contracts, as well as allowing citizens to demand better service ex-post.

3 responses to Open data in public private partnerships: how citizens can become true watchdogs

  1. I’m surprised they didn’t just order the Where’s My Villo? site to cease and desist from scraping the data, which is exactly what they did to Oliver O’Brien when he started scraping data from the JCDecaux run schemes to visualise their performance:

  2. Data collected by PPP/PFI companies (and perhaps even about the services they provide?) is as I understand it not required to be released under open data guidelines (and one suspects that the same may be true for other third party providers of ‘government’ services including voluntary and other not for profit organisations); ludicrous at the time and worse now with the relentless drive to ‘market provision’ of such services. Accountability and transparency for some, competitive advantage and shareholder value for others. Intriguing to see what the intention to release contract details and values will do to this picture.

  3. Very nice arcticle. I hope to read from you very soon! greetings

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