City data: Why should we care?

Charlotte Hutton of Future Cities Catapult

The amount of data being produced is escalating. Everyday personal activities are accompanied by a device that feeds back to a database – we’re getting around town using integrated navigation apps, 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 is teeming with useful insights. This resource 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, the production of city data is set to continue, says Charlotte Hutton, Business Development intern of Future Cities Catapult.

But so what?

In short, decision makers of our cities need to understand ways to utilise this data effectively with the goal of producing innovative solutions to the challenges we face today. Challenges such as air pollution, urban mobility, 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 exhibit 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 this connection, data is just data. By combining data sets, we can identify relationships and trends between them and uncover rich insights into how a large system works. This also highlights the challenge that data scientists face in efficiently combining this data and replicating their methods and insights widely.

Tombolo is an example of a project at Future Cities Catapult where a team is actively tackling this issue. 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 for 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, lead Pproject manager for data and digital innovation at Future Cities 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.”

There is no doubt that data is a useful resource for our cities’ decision makers. The production of data might be increasing but there are many present and future challenges impacting how we use it to innovate. However, these challenges also present opportunities for uncovering new and innovative methods overcoming these issues.

The author of this blog is Charlotte Hutton, Business Development intern on the Tombolo project at Future Cities Catapult.

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