Photo by ElvertBarnes on Flickr.

If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one around to hear it, does it make a sound? And if a LEED Platinum building is erected amidst a sea of parking spaces, at the intersection of three major highways and an unused surface street, can we really call it LEED Platinum?

The National Building Museum, in partnership with IBM, TIME Magazine and the Rockefeller Foundation, hosted a forum on the subject of Intelligent Cities this past Monday, where planners, architects, academics, community activists, politicians, and government officials from across DC and beyond set out explore such questions.

Across the many discussions, covering topics from the nature of social interaction in a wireless city to the role of municipal government in promoting a healthier lifestyle, one theme stuck out: the power of effective data management and analysis.

Former mayors, health officials, programmers, designers, and transportation gurus all touted the irrefutable benefits afforded to metro areas in possession of well-organized, well-analyzed, and well-used records. From building a stronger case for federal investment in the latest transportation initiative, to heightening civic engagement through the timely release of resonant facts and figures, a municipality with a grip on its own data streams has the potential to see some high returns.

Should DC spend more dollars investing in meaningful data collection and analysis? Should government-sponsored programs, like CaBi?

About a month ago, I stumbled upon a Capital Bikeshare van when returning my bike to a nearby station. I asked the gentleman filling the dock if he had a system for swapping bikes beyond a real-time station tracker, like the one on my iPhone.

There’s no time for that, he explained. Today, his is a reactive role. He’s on high-alert, damage control.

But what about tomorrow? With enough data, predictive modeling could amplify his impact. If he were armed with software that could anticipate shortages and overloads at CaBi docks, rather than waiting for the problems to set in, he could get ahead of the trends. Rush hour may always pose a challenge for a shared bike network, but off-peak, his outfit could, potentially, do the job of two or three CaBi vans, with half the stress.

This is just one high-profile instance of how smart data management can improve a municipal service.  At the Intelligent Cities Forum, contributors presented many more examples.  From layering health data atop air quality and transit grids to determine the optimal health conditions for city dwellers, to aggregating congestion patterns, pedestrian safety reports and speeding violations to make the smartest decisions regarding traffic diffusion, data done right has the potential to revolutionize decision-making in the modern city.

Whether DC will benefit from the data it could potentially store is not a question of “if,” but “how.”

At the city level, predicting which metrics truly warrant long-term aggregation is no simple task. On the other hand, collecting and storing data is easy and cheap. So for now, perhaps it is better for major cities like DC play it safe and collect as much data as possible.

And when we’re ready to act on the data we have?  Sometimes the first steps aren’t nearly as daunting or financially burdensome as they might seem.

On Monday, at a panel on “The City as a Lab,” Dustin Haisler, former CIO of Manor, Texas, shared the success his city enjoyed when it began tagging documents, files and even on-going municipal projects with QR codes. Rather than implementing an expensive document management system, Haisler and his team opted to use free, QR coding technology.

Through widespread implementation, the codes did more than just keep the government offices organized. By posting QR codes on buildings and signs around town for passers-by to scan using their smart phones, Manor experienced a growth in tourism, heightened resident engagement, and a new level of transparency with regard to city-sponsored developments and projects.

At the end of the panel, an audience member asked Haisler to disclose how much the initial phase of QR implementation cost his city.

”$400,” he replied. “Printing costs—for the tags.”

Ksenia Kaladiouk lives in Southeast DC, where she spends her time writing, sketching, running, taking photos, scheming and studying the flying trapeze.  She is particularly interested in the history of urban development, education, the effects of space on the rise and fall of cultural and commercial institutions, and vice versa.