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The French Brief - French Cities Digitalize, Slowly but Surely

The French Brief - French Cities Digitalize, Slowly but Surely
 Théophile Lenoir
Fellow - Misinformation and Digital Policy

The Covid-19 crisis put the information systems of French government agencies, companies and organizations to the test. In order to better understand the impact of the pandemic and to craft an effective response, it became crucial to know what data was available, who had access to it and under what conditions. 

When the crisis struck, French cities were already aware that digitalization and data could bring efficiency and improve the quality of their services. For several years, the idea of smart cities had been making the rounds, promising better urban environments thanks to information and communication technologies. However, they were still somewhat caught off guard when they had to address these questions in the midst of the pandemic. 

French cities are digitalizing, slowly but surely. They may appear to be late when compared with cities such as Singapore, but they are keeping pace with their European counterparts. Nevertheless, some politicians are still struggling to seize the potential of new technologies and to develop political campaigns around them. When, during the municipal elections of 2020, Institut Montaigne evaluated the programs of the 49 candidates in 11 cities, only 3% of their proposals concerned digital technology, the digital transformation of public policies or the collection and analysis of data. 

Yet, using data in a city can significantly improve the quality of public services. Some uses of data have now become commonplace: placing sensors on dustbins to find out when they are full and to optimize their collection, or on street lamps, to reduce energy consumption; optimizing traffic lights; involving citizens by giving them the opportunity to share their opinion on the city's public policies via mobile applications, or by allowing them to provide real-time data on public transport traffic and infrastructure quality; anticipating pollution peaks by linking information on the flow of cars to the local weather forecast, etc. 

Using data in a city can significantly improve the quality of public services.

In 2016, the law for a Digital republic (loi pour une République numérique, or loi "Lemaire", named after its author) was passed. It asked state administrations, cities larger than 3,500 inhabitants and public service organizations of over 50 employees to make their data publicly available. 

In 2020, only 10% of the French cities concerned had done so. That being said, some others have been actively working on the issue for a while now. For example, Rennes, Nantes, Paris or Bordeaux have been developing open data programs since the 2010s. More recently, in April 2021, the government asked ministries and regions to designate a data administrator, in charge of creating clear roadmaps for how to digitalize their services.

The fact is that not all French cities move at the same speed or have the same ambitions. Several factors account for these differences. For example, large cities such as Paris, Lyon or Lille benefit from vibrant innovation ecosystems, with start-ups and larger organizations that are eager to develop projects. They also have larger budgets and potentially more users, for initiatives such as apps that provide real-time information on how busy the Parisian metro is, for example. 

Often, cities aim at coordinating efforts between various actors. In 2016, Montpellier mobilized its ecosystem around a set of priorities, including digital citizenship and IoT, designating private actors to carry out projects. In 2018 and 2019 respectively, Strasbourg and Lille created a metropolitan service in charge of data (Service public métropolitain de la donnée) to do the same. Nantes had a charter signed in 2019 by the companies and organizations taking part in the city’s digital transformation, addressing issues of transparency, security and sovereignty, and aiming to develop innovative services.

The challenge for cities is to understand who is involved in what, who collects which data and to encourage collaboration between public and private players. 

In some cases, these coordination efforts have led to the creation of centralized platforms to which various actors contribute. For example, in 2019, Angers created an ambitious platform to supervise public services in 9 sectors, including water, lighting, waste, health and mobility management.

The challenge for cities is to understand who is involved in what, who collects which data and to encourage collaboration between public and private players. This requires changing the way data-related issues are taken care of inside cities. In 2014, Bordeaux created a new service to handle open-data, and in 2020 it designated a data administrator in charge of developing a new strategy for the city. Nice also re-organized its services: it placed its management of information systems under the responsibility of a General Secretary who oversees the city’s services. In parallel, it created a department in charge of innovation and the smart city, to promote the creation of new services.

French cities are taking action to digitalize and they are experiencing the common difficulties associated with technology. Transforming a city is no longer just about creating software, it’s also about facing the difficult challenge of transforming processes and practices. This requires mobilizing elected officials at the highest level. Over the past year and a half, Institut Montaigne conducted a detailed study of data mobilization projects in a number of French cities. In most cases where projects were successfully completed, elected officials were involved. Hence our message to cities and their elected representatives: think about your data!


Copyright: JOSEP LAGO / AFP

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