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Who benefits from smart cities?

Government benefits from sharing data— but businesses?

By Duncan Weldon  

Prospect’s Manchester roundtable discussion

Read more of Prospect’s “Data as infrastructure” report

Earlier this year, Prospect and Atkins convened three roundtable events in Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol to discuss the future of smart cities and data use in transport planning. Each discussion brought together councillors, local government officials, academics, private businesses and the voluntary sector to give their views on a few key questions.

Given that Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol are very different cities and
at different stages of devolution, it was striking how much overlap there was across the three locations when it came to the big issues of data use and better planning.

Each roundtable addressed three interconnected questions on the themes of smart cities and data as a form of infrastructure. Firstly, how can we use data to empower smarter city services in the future? Second, given local authorities, governments, firms and other organisations are now collecting huge amounts of data, how can we ensure it is used for the right purpose? And finally, what are the main barriers to creating integrated and smart transport systems in the future?

All too often, the discussion of issues like smart cities, data-led planning or new technology such as driverless cars and other forms of autonomous vehicles, can feel very abstract. It can be easy to focus on the longer term horizon and outline visions for smart cities in a decade or two’s time while down-playing what has to happen in the next 18 months. To avoid that trap, each roundtable asked what practical steps had to be taken and which challenges had to be addressed in the coming two or three years, if we want to see the kind of smart cities in 2030 that we are aiming for.

“Agreeing to share data is only the first step—making sure that data is in an easy-to-use format can be a challenge”

One constant across all three roundtables and from all sectors was a recognition that there has been a step change in the level of data produced over the past 15 or so years. In terms of transport planning, the use of smart phones and contactless payment cards to pay for journeys has provided important new insights into how commuters actually move around a city. When combined with other data, for example from CCTV control centres, city planners and transport authorities have access to a level of detail thought impossible just a few years ago. Jason Pavey of Atkins introduced two of the roundtables, setting out the wider scene and developments around the country. In particular he highlighted Atkins recent trials of “mobility as a service” in Cambridge and how smart use of data could be used for the benefits of the whole community. James Freeman, the Managing Director of bus operator First West of England, explained how his firm was now inundated with new sources of data. He also explained how his firm’s whole attitude had changed in recent years from “this is our data” to an appreciation of the benefits of sharing it more widely.

Agreeing to share data is only the first step—making sure that data is in an easy-to-use format can be a challenge. This is especially so in local authorities where budgets have been squeezed and open source data standards may not be a high priority. During all three roundtables it was noted that different local authorities place differing levels of emphasis of producing and disseminating data, and that, for example, while Bristol, Leeds and Birmingham are regularly praised for their approach, others are lagging behind. Alison McKenzie Folan, the Deputy Chief Executive of Wigan City Council, noted that making data open source had not been a priority at Wigan but that this was changing. The council was learning from its neighbours who had made data open source and seen tangible benefits.

Sally Randles, Professor of Innovation and Sustainability, Manchester Metropolitan University

Raj Mack, the Head of Digital Birmingham, noted how difficult it could be at times to secure the necessary funding to make sure data was properly cleaned and put into a useable format (see Alan Wilson, p4). Stuart Lester, the Digital Projects Officer at the new West Midlands Combined Authority, explained how the councils that made up the combined authority faced a significant problem in that they used different databases and collected data in different ways. Simply standardising how the data was collected and presented would be a big task, but a crucial one if the data was to be useable at the combined authority level. This led to the question of national guidelines on how data should be presented, an issue that came up at all three of our meetings. It would be a huge help if local authorities and indeed firms, could conform to a standard template.

The closely related issue of data governance was raised at all three roundtables. In particular, the thorny question of the extent to which the public and private sectors should make their data available to each other. While data sharing has the potential to bring a wide array of benefits, the gains made by individual firms or authorities can be harder to measure. There is also a potential “free riding” problem—where some organisations benefit from the data of others without sharing their own. Simon Warburton, the Interim Transport Strategy Director at Transport for Greater Manchester and Peter Molyneux, Strategic Road Transport Director at Transport for the North both said that data was of central importance to their organisations and a key influence on how they approached planning decisions. Christian Spence, Head of Research and Policy at the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce, noted that, while business was generally happy to share data with the public, it was helpful if a “business case” could be made showing why the individual firm would benefit.

Getting to the bottom of these issues means going back to a simple question: who will benefit from data sharing in smart cities in the future? Ultimately the answer should be the people. Julian Tate, the founder of Open Data Manchester noted how it was almost impossible to go through life in the modern world without leaving a large data footprint and that people had a right to benefit from the new use being made of this information.

“Data sharing could bring a wide array of benefits, individual gains are harder to measure”

Another issue that emerged was that of planning in smart cities. How much infrastructure and particularly transport infrastructure, was necessary? And at what level—the city, the city-region, the wider region or the national level? Simon Collinson, the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Regional Economic Development at City-REDI, at the University of Birmingham, argued that the appropriate level of planning would vary from project to project. There was a general sense among local authority speakers that the future of city deals depends on the progress made in the next few years and that some early successes would encourage Whitehall to devolve more powers.

Prospect’s Bristol roundtable discussion: (L-R) Matthew Cockburn, Project Manager, Venture & Flourish at Bristol City Council, Jason Pavey, Market Director-Local Transport, Atkins, Stephen Hilton, Director, Bristol Futures Global

And closely related to this was the need to take a more holistic view of planning than was often the case. Xavier Brice, the CEO of Sustrans—a charity that aims to make walking and cycling easier for people—noted that, all too often, transport planning focused on trains, buses, roads and trams rather than more environmentally sustainable alternatives.

The need to keep communities at the heart of the debate was a constant theme of these events. Terry Crewe of Manchester Community Transport for example, argued strongly that all of the talk of smart cities risked being meaningless to many of the poorest members of communities, who often felt ill served by existing infrastructure.

Taken together, the three roundtables covered a great deal of ground and several key themes emerged. Policymakers, the private sector and the third sector are all aware of the vast new sources of data and all are keen to make better use of it. At all three events it was clear that businesses and local authorities could see the mutual benefits to better data sharing and how it could lead to better outcomes for all sides. The issue, as ever, was how to manage this.

There was a recognition that achieving the smart cities we want to see by 2030 requires change to start happening now—and indeed in some areas of the UK that change is already happening while others are at risk of lagging behind. The most useful step that could be taken in the short term is to ensure that any data that can be shared is being shared, and in a format that makes it easy for others to use. Making as much information as possible available to local authorities, private business and other interested community groups and academics should result in better policy and planning decisions, and—it is hoped—better towns and cities for us to live in. If we get it right, data might just help us to live better lives.

Duncan Weldon, Beverley Nielsen and Stuart Lester

On the 3rd of October, Prospect launched Data as Infrastructure. This special report grew out of a series of high-level roundtable meetings over the summer which brought together government, private businesses and the third sector to look at how data is already being used to improve people’s lives and how it has the potential to do so much more.

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