Colombia’s Cali Uses Big Data to Change Perceptions, Drive Investment

Cali, Colombia’s third largest and at one point one of its most violent cities, is leveraging the power of big data to counteract negative perceptions about the region …

Cali's North Downtown from Cerro de las Tres Cruces Santiago de Cali - Colombia

Cali, Colombia’s third largest and at one point one of its most violent cities, is leveraging the power of big data to counteract negative perceptions about the region and to empower its citizens and business investors. Under the leadership of its mayor, Dr Rodrigo Guerrero, the city has managed not only to lower its crime rate significantly, but also to use Colombia’s Open Data initiative to contextualize information about everything from health to crime and in so doing, better position itself as an investment opportunity.

Stephen Loynd, Global Program Director for Customer Contact at Frost & Sullivan
Stephen Loynd, Global Program Director for Customer Contact at Frost & Sullivan

It is hard to contemplate doing business in Colombia without considering the impact of violence and crime. Misconceptions and fears abound. Stephen Loynd, Global Program Director for Customer Contact at Frost & Sullivan, who visited Cali in August, said: “Often when you mention that you are going to certain countries like Colombia, people warn you to be cautious. In fact I thought Cali was a beautiful city. The gulf between perception and reality is vast, particularly in the media in the USA.”

Tackling real problems

That is not to say that Cali is without problems. Mayor Guerrero, now in his second term as mayor, has been forthright in addressing those issues, especially in terms of crime, and pragmatic in finding ways to combat the problems. Using his own training as an epidemiologist, he has worked to identify the factors that contribute to crime in Cali and his findings have surprised people.

Loynd pointed out that, for example, when Guerrero was first in office as mayor in the 1990s, there were general perceptions that crime in the city was associated with drug cartels, but his evidence-based approach showed that issues such as alcohol on weekends were much more responsible for violence than drug cartels.

Since then, much has changed and Guerrero, who started his second term as mayor in 2012, has had to re-examine the data. In an interview with the BBC in October last year, he said: “What we’ve found this time is that a large proportion of murders are linked with organized crime: there was premeditation, the killings usually involved automatic guns, etc.”

Roberto Reyes, Chief Information Officer of the Santiago de Cali Municipality
Roberto Reyes, Chief Information Officer of the Santiago de Cali Municipality

Roberto Reyes, Chief Information Officer of the Santiago de Cali Municipality, explained that the government has been working to put in place infrastructure to support initiatives to tackle these issues. For example, there are more than 1,000 cameras in place in Cali, and ten sensors capturing data about the environment. This data is used to identify and understand issues such as crime within the city and the goal is to make the data available to everyone.

More than just data

Data alone, though, is not enough. Carolina Monsalve, Investment Manager for the Services Sector at Invest Pacific, explained that it is not just about using the data, but about showing the numbers in detail, segregated, and contextualizing them so that people understand their meaning. The result is that as change is happening, people are being made aware of those changes and perceptions are starting to mirror reality.

“In Cali, we have been able to close the gap between the perception and reality of homicide rates,” said Monsalve. This is all part of a movement to position Cali as a smart city.

“The mayor has been working to build Cali as a digital city, using information systems, infrastructure, services, and helping people to understand the digital ecosystem that we have to offer,” she said. “We are the most intelligent city in Colombia, and were recently mentioned as one of the 100 most resilient cities in the world.” Cali has already established itself as an emerging site for global services outsourcing. Monsalve added: “Companies are becoming more aware of Cali and the benefits of investing here.”

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The approach taken by Guerrero and his team has provided its residents, both local and foreign, with more detailed information about what is happening in the city. It is also encouraging innovation. “I am receiving phone calls from companies, for example, that want data on the bus system because they want to create mobile apps for citizens,” said Reyes.

The ultimate goal of all of this, though, is to improve the standard of living for all citizens of Cali. “We are using technology across all sectors, education, health, security, to improve the living standard for Cali citizens,” Reyes said.

Facing obstacles

Carolina Monsalve, Investment Manager for the Services Sector at Invest Pacific
Carolina Monsalve, Investment Manager for the Services Sector at Invest Pacific

The use of analytics and big data has garnered praise and media coverage for Cali and its mayor, but the approach has encountered obstacles. Chief among these, said Reyes, is resistance from certain government employees who fear that releasing data to citizens and potential investors means losing power. “We need to convince everyone that this is about helping our citizens,” he said. The Colombian government is pushing for the provision of open data through its Open Government Partnership initiative.

Another obstacle is integrating data across different systems and ensuring that the data is in a format that can be used and communicated to everyone, Reyes explained.

Despite these challenges, Cali is an example of how data can be used to enact change and also then to ensure that perceptions keep up with those changes. Loynd noted that perceptions are changing. “Generally speaking, perceptions within the BPO community are changing. People that are travelling to Colombia regularly are much more likely to be positive and to understand those nuances of the region or the city. It is so important for people in the BPO community to get out from behind the desk and see the city, whether it is Cali or Bogotá,” he said.

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