A big part of the future of the world belongs to cities. More than 640 million people live in the world’s 300 largest cities; 483 cities have populations of more than one million; by 2050, 70 per cent of the world’s population will live in cities.

Ever since a presentation I gave at last month’s TEDxBrighton, I’ve been thinking and talking a lot about cities, specifically about “open-data cities“: cities – most commonly in North America – where institutions and organisations make data available in structured, non-proprietary, collaborative formats, while declaring a public commitment to transparency.

Closer to home, it strikes me that the opening up of data in cities in the United Kingdom could herald a renaissance in local newspapers. More specifically, it could signal a new dawn for big-city newspapers.

From city-based news to urban centres

Famously, there is no strict or standard definition of what constitutes a city in the UK – nor do we focus sharply on city media. Instead, we generalise about newspapers as either local (and regional) or national publications.

For my purposes, I want to concentrate on large urban centres served by a single local authority with responsibility for the broadest range of services – and by a single dominant newspaper title.

Leaving aside the special case of London, there are 20 unitary authorities and metropolitan districts that have more than about 250,000 citizens, including Birmingham, Bradford, Brighton & Hove as well as Leeds, Liverpool and Leicester. In nearly every case, core circulation areas of once-great newspapers map almost exactly to local authority boundaries.

It is these 20 or so conurbations where the media landscape could be transformed by an open-data approach of the sort already being adopted by San Francisco, New York, and Washington.

Coincidentally, it is these conurbations that are likely to generate the 10 to 15 local TV services that Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary, hopes to see emerge by 2015. By which time YouView and IPTV services will also be making a big impact.

Challenges for the “local press

So how can our big-city newspapers reinvent themselves and remain relevant in a rapidly maturing digital context? (One thing is certain: it won’t be by trying to run their own local TV stations!)

One possible answer lies in data – the more of it, the better.

This is not an argument for more “data-driven journalism” (although that would be no bad thing). This is an argument for a new role – and, potentially, new business models – for big-city newspapers.

The Guardian’s Datastore has hinted at the way ahead, making available more than 600 datasets in the last two years. It is an eclectic mix of national and international data, embracing a myriad of domains.

Combined with its innovative Open Platform, The Guardian is positioning itself as a hub for all types of content, including data; it offers a suite of services for others to develop digital products, in a process of co-production that can be monetised in a number of ways.

The world-class data.gov.uk and London Datastore initiatives go from strength to strength, expanding in scale and sophistication. And yet, how many newspapers have done anything memorable with the data? How many have developed even a data strategy?

At a local level, the richness of the data that awaits to be released can have a real impact on the everyday lives of citizens, add value to the local economy, unleash the creativity of local businesses, and help hold those in power to account.

Emphatically, this is not just about apps and websites. Nor is it, for example, simply about more crime maps. Despite all the hullabaloo about the re-launch of www.police.uk, it should be noted that not a single spreadsheet, not one piece of data, was made openly available.

Moving towards open-data cities

If a rich mass of city-specific data about city-specific services – transport, education, health, housing, social care, voluntary organisations, and so on – is made freely available, the possibilities are unimaginable. The results will be magnificently, disruptively unpredictable. Just as they were when the web was in its infancy in the early 1990s.

If machine-readable structure data is made available on the web, in a non-proprietary format and using open standards, – if (in Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s rating system) we can create “five-star” open-data cities by linking such local datasets together – we can begin to supplement the current of documents with a mesh of data.

Cities that progress towards this web 3.0 world will have the advantage of being the most networked cities in a networked world. Like Toronto, they will be building cities that “think like the web”.

And who is better placed than big-city newspapers to lead such a movement, to act as catalysts of change, to call for the civic appointment of chief information officers, and to act for curators of linked open data?

Big media, with its record of missed opportunities and lack of innovation in digital development, won’t have many more chances to secure a position in the lives of citizens.

Perhaps now is the time newspapers to place a bet on the future – starting in a city near you.

Greg Hadfield, a former Fleet Street journalist and internet entrepreneur, is director of strategic projects at Cogapp, an award-winning digital agency. He is also involved in Open-data Brighton and Hove.