5 Key learnings when innovating with data

posted in: City Challenges, Event | 1

In a previous blog, I examined why innovators and decision makers should care about City Data. Future Cities Catapult’s recent event ‘Challenges and Innovation in City Data’ was an opportunity to identify where Tombolo sits within this ecosystem.

Future Cities Catapult gathered together authorities in the field of City Data to discuss the obstacles that decision-makers face when using data to innovate in our cities. Tombolo, a Future Cities Catapult and Space Syntax collaborative project, was there to watch and take part. This topic is vast – for every new idea and possibility there are challenges, and for every challenge there are possibilities.

The promise data holds for a city’s innovation capability is an exciting one. By providing personalised services and offering new ways of citizen engagement and care, data could hold the key to improved urban living. However, currently, we are faced with very real challenges such as; How do councils optimise data science with decreasing budgets? How do we navigate privacy issues and the benefits of open data? How do we link this data together to provide valuable outcomes?

With over 60 attendees, ranging from local and central government, researchers, consultants and SMEs, these seem to be popular questions. To reflect the wide-reaching topic, the speakers themselves were selected from a range of disciplines;

  • Dr Adam Rae – Head of Urban Data, Future Cities Catapult
  • Nevena Dragicevic – Programme Manager, Offices of Data Analytics, Nesta
  • Ed Parkes – Data & Service Delivery Re-design Programme Manager, ODI
  • Pye Nyunt – Corporate Insights Hub Manager, Borough of Barking and Dagenham Council
  • Miranda Sharp – Head of the Smart Practice, OS
  • Megnote Tessema – Operations Manager, Asset Mapping
  • Sam Markey, Head of Business Development, Future Cities Catapult


Each speaker has a hands-on approach to innovating through data and therefore provided honest and useful accounts of their experience. The format of the evening allowed for the speakers to present the context of their work, where they perceive the challenges to be and how they are overcoming these. London’s CDO, Theo Blackwell kicked off the panel discussion by asking the panel about the future of London’s Digital Strategy. To catch up with the conversation check out the the live blog written by Tombolo’s Project Board member, Brian Condon. Or watch the whole event here.

During these talks, 5 key learnings when working on a data project for city innovation where addressed:

  1. We need to remember that it is about the people, not just the data
  2. We need to understand that the process of these projects are far from straight forward. Anyone going to undertake such a task should be prepared for a non-linear process and therefore agility and change management are key
  3. We need to utilise the possibilities held in opening data to improve our services
  4. We need to connect data to yield the benefits of deeper insights
  5. We need to build the network that exists in the urban data community to produce viable outcomes together

Enter Tombolo.

Dr Adam Rae discussed Future Cities Catapult and Space Syntax’s collaborative project, Tombolo. By identifying the barriers of fragmentation and lack of coordination in the urban data ecosystem the Tombolo team are “building those tools to make it easier, more efficient, more streamline to allow people to use a range of different sources from a range of different providers quickly and easily”. This allows data analytic experiments to focus more on generating insights and turning those insights into meaningful action in the city.



Although this is what Tombolo aims to produce by the end of the 3-year project. The outcome has spanned further than this. For me, the project demonstrates the 5 action points discussed by the speakers.

  1. Through developing consultancy services, Space Syntax are ensuring that people remain at the heart of data-decisions.
  2. The tool, our Digital Connector, is a reaction to the benefits of linking data to produce richer insights.
  3. Our choice to release it open source promotes open innovation.
  4. In conjunction with releasing the tool open source the project has highlighted the need to nurture the network of innovators, explorers and visionaries.In doing so, we can optimise the use of urban data to reach the shiny promise of the urban future.
  5. The two and half years the project has been running has been far from linear and not without its failures (future blogs will delve into this process further). However, Tombolo is a project that demonstrates the challenges – but also the innovation – that comes from connecting datasets.

Future Cities Catapult will be hosting more in the future and we plan to be there. Sign up to Tombolo’s newsletter for more information about Tombolo in the meantime.


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