City Data – why should we care?

We understand that the amount of data being produced in our cities is escalating. We also understand that this comes with challenges, which require the development of effective methods to utilise this data for better decision-making and grow skills and capability within city authorities.

Over the past 15-years, there has been a huge increase in data production. With over 20-billion connected devices worldwide, our cities are brimming with data. Our everyday personal activities are now accompanied by a device that feeds back to a database – we’re getting around town using integrated navigation applications, accessing public services provided by our municipality, using local transport with our contactless cards and making purchases with our credit cards.

Whether private, shared, or open – that growing swarm of data teems with useful insights. The increased usage of these means that there is a resource that allows us to understand how we interact with our urban surroundings and how the city can serve us better. With the continued acceleration of technology, such as WLAN and IoT, it seems a safe to assume that the production of city data is set to continue.

But so what?

In short, decision makers of our cities need to know how to use this data effectively to innovate solutions to the challenges we face today. Challenges such as air pollution, the housing crisis and social isolation (to name a few). City authorities are beginning to examine how they organise themselves to use data to diagnose these problems and target their limited resources more effectively.

The London Borough of Barking and Dagenham are an example of how a city authority can make their data work for them. Their Corporate Insight Hub was created with the aim of making better use of the council’s data to understand customer needs, forecast future demand and design behavioural interventions. One such project modelled the relationship between betting shops and gambling addiction. This was achieved by analysing the proximity of schools to betting shops, local mental health problems, the presence of homeless shelters, food banks and payday loan shops. This modelling enabled the Borough to identify which areas were most at risk and determine future policy.

This example demonstrates that the effectiveness of data lies in connecting it. Without doing so, data is just data. But by combining data sets, we can identify relationships and trends between them and uncover any richer insights into how a large system works. Yet, it highlights the challenge that data scientists face in efficiently combining this data and replicating their methods and insights widely.

Tombolo is an example of one project at Future Cities Catapult, where a team is actively tackling this issue. The team believe that an open source tool for connecting datasets into a common format and allowing connected data models to be shared could change how cities approach data modelling and knowledge sharing. For example, if data scientists in Leeds were to develop an innovative way of identifying which areas in their city were at greatest risk of social isolation in the elderly, they could share that method with Manchester by uploading it, along with the modelling code online (but importantly – not sharing the data itself).

Jon Robertson, who leads data and digital innovation projects at the Catapult, believes “Local Authorities are always going to be constrained to some degree by how much data science resource they can have working on their problems at any one time – these are still relatively new, limited and expensive skills in the labour market. That’s why to get scale of benefits quickly from applied data science in cities, it’s going to be important to apply ‘open’ and ‘collaborative’ thinking from the start. Local authority data and insight leaders might want to ask, how might an operating model based on the values of openness and collaboration work when it comes to applying data science to local government and what might that mean for working with others? It’s very different to the traditional way of working in local authorities, but it opens up exciting possibilities.”

The production of data is increasing and it is a useful resource of our cities’ decision makers. However, there are many present and future challenges impacting how we use our data to innovate. But, these challenges also present opportunities for uncovering new innovative methods and solutions for overcoming these.

You can follow our Tombolo project on Twitter here.

This blog was first published on Future Cities Catapult website.

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