Does open data lead to data democracy or anarchy? City leaders say the former.

By Si Ying Thian

Open data reaps more benefits than harms by facilitating participatory governance through a “common language” shared between governments, citizens, and the private sector, said speakers at a geospatial forum moderated by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA).

Singapore Geospatial Forum speakers at the World Cities Summit 2024 (from left to right): Deputy Mayor of Prague, Petr Hlavacek,Vice Mayor of Rotterdam, Vincent Karremans, Lord Mayor of Melbourne, Sally Capp, Singapore Management University (SMU)’s President, Prof. Lily Kong, Bhutan’s National Land Commission (NLCS)’s Secretary, Tshering Gyaltshen Penjor. Image: Singapore Land Authority (SLA)'s LinkedIn.

How much data should government agencies release? What type of data is appropriate to release? What if bad actors use the data to malicious ends? 

These were some of the questions raised by speakers at the Singapore Geospatial Forum held at the World Cities Summit on June 3, which sought to explore the potential consequences of open data access. 

As governments increasingly adopt open data policies, including geospatial data, open data access can be a double-edged sword as governments navigate between being transparent to their citizens and safeguarding national security.

Amidst concerns around privacy and data misuse, city planners from Melbourne and Rotterdam highlighted the benefits of open geospatial data, such as fostering citizen trust and enabling private sector participation in developing innovative solutions.

They were speaking at the Singapore Geospatial Forum held at the World Cities Summit on June 3, moderated by Singapore Land Authority (SLA)’s Chief Data Officer and Director of Geospatial and Data, Siau Yong Ng.

The forum hosted speakers including Lord Mayor of Melbourne, Sally Capp, Vice Mayor of Rotterdam, Vincent Karremans, Deputy Mayor of Prague, Petr Hlavacek, Bhutan’s National Land Commission (NLCS)’s Secretary, Tshering Gyaltshen Penjor, Singapore Management University (SMU)’s President, Prof. Lily Kong.

A common language to co-create policies

There will always be special interest groups in society driving their own agendas, but at least they can use something quantifiable like data to make a case for it, said Rotterdam’s Karremans.


He was referring to data as a common language shared by society and the government. “We can then have a conversation based on the same figures. This makes for a more transparent and fruitful conversation,” he added.

The same data is read differently across various stakeholders, and this adds value to solutions created for the public good, said Singapore Management University (SMU)'s President Prof. Lily Kong. Image: SLA's LinkedIn.

Open data avoids groupthink, said SMU’s Prof. Kong, as the same data can be read differently across various stakeholders. Multiple perspectives and interpretations can add value to creating solutions for the public good.

In the broader policy context where multiple stakeholders are involved, having a common language also makes it easier for governments to communicate why certain policies would not work, explained Melbourne’s Capp.

However, it is not just about governments making data available, but making it accessible: “It’s got to be free, easy to find by everybody or majority of the people, consistent and usable,” she said. 


In Melbourne, Capp shared that her team goes the extra mile in customising the data and generating it into reports that would be beneficial for different groups in society, such as small businesses.

Data collection costs: Who should pay?

As government budgets diminish, the panel discussed the role of government and private sector in developing sustainable financing models for geospatial data collection – which saw differing views among the speakers.

“There has been debate in public administration as to the use of data and whether it should be taxed. In a way, we see the true value of data. Otherwise, it may bring about wastage as data collection costs resources,” said Singapore’s Ng.

Vice Mayor of Rotterdam, Vincent Karremans, said that government needs to play a bigger role investing in geospatial data and tech given it being in its early stage. Image: SLA's LinkedIn.

As geospatial planning is still in its early stage, the government should play a bigger role in investing, said Karremans. 

By virtue of governments opening data, the private sector can make better investment decisions, and this adds value for the community. “There’s already a business in itself, without the need of monetising it upfront,” he explained.

Melbourne, on the other hand, is using a testbed approach to collaborate with the private sector and universities to identify common benefits and develop financing models around geospatial developments.


"I think that's really breaking down a lot of barriers and helping us identify new ways forward, even in financially constrained environments. So, it comes down to people hanging out together and collaborating,” Capp explained.

‘No need to reinvent the wheel’: Standardisation and integration as next steps

The next step is standardising processes and metrics around geospatial planning, so that we can improve the lives of our people, said Karremans. 

He added that cross-border partnerships are under way between Rotterdam and Singapore, Hamburg respectively.


Such partnerships can help governments learn from each other and speed up the process of using geospatial data and technologies to improve livelihoods.

Prague’s Hlavacek also shared about the possibility of integrating satellite and land data for a more holistic geospatial assessment. However, he highlighted the challenge of integrating data from the European Space Agency given the region’s emphasis on citizen privacy rights.

SLA and Bhutan's National Land Commission signed an agreement to deepen Bhutan's geospatial capabilities to support its national development of land administration. Image: SLA's LinkedIn.

“Geospatial data mapped over time is going to be as important as the slicing at this point of time,” Prof. Kong shared about the importance of weaving in changes over time in geospatial data analysis, particularly in the context of climate change.

The forum saw two agreements signed. One was a cross-border partnership between SLA and Bhutan’s NLCS to deepen Bhutan’s geospatial capabilities and support its national development of a land administration and framework.

The second was a partnership between SLA and SMU’s College of Integrative Studies and Urban Institute to leverage geospatial data to support research projects around climate change and urban challenges.