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Who knows you better—you, or your smartphone?

New data, new people

By Miranda Sharp  

Example screen from CityVerve

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

You’re the first person to set foot on Mars. You log instantly where your landing craft is. You scope the landscape looking for risk and landmarks, and in this way you collect geospatial data, giving it attributions and using it to plan your next move. This comes to us as naturally as breathing.

Accurate and up-to-date geospatial data and intelligence is vital for a variety of reasons. Since the dawn of time, geospatial data has been the bedrock on which all communal living has been built, and, as we move into an age of new and emerging technologies that can potentially improve the way we work, rest and play, we in the geospatial industry have entered an intense period of creativity and collaboration to see how new innovations can be put to best use.

“Smart” is a catch-all phrase, used mostly in conjunction with cities. Yet, it’s not just cities with smart aspirations. We’re now seeing villages, motorways and even whole nations attaching themselves to the label, as if by doing so they are rejecting whatever the opposite of smart is.

The public authorities charged with taking advantage of these emergent, and not yet regulated, technologies are simultaneously tackling the challenges of an ageing population, squeezed public finances and a fragmented society. It’s easy to see how the Internet of Things could impact these social and economic goals when we think about the improvement of air quality through better public transport networks. Imagine the improvements to healthcare and social care if homes can be designed specifically to meet medical and care needs. Think of the reduced energy and light pollution from efficient and responsive lamp-posts.

These examples represent, at least in theory, a huge opportunity for everyone.

Through our work on CityVerve in Manchester, it has become clear that smart initiatives need data. And not just standalone spreadsheets or impenetrable downloads, but streams of information, most of it happening in real-time. For a light in a city street to know whether to switch itself on, it must react to a huge amount of live data. Context is all important, both in the present and also historically. Data systems are made more powerful if comparisons can be made with yesterday, last year or the last time a similar event happened.

To make this work, information about every physical asset becomes a necessity. Take civic waste bins and rat traps. Do authorities need to waste valuable resources checking empty bins or traps? Can this be done much more efficiently with remote monitoring and full vessels communicating when they need emptying?

There are other ways of using this kind of data to give social benefits. One example we are exploring with the NHS is the idea of encouraging them to walk more. In this system, people arrive at a bus stop and are offered a discounted fare if they walk to the next bus stop, where they can catch the same bus. The theory being we’re nudging people towards a more active lifestyle, which has a positive knock on effect in terms of demands placed on the NHS. Also, a bus carrying fewer passengers and which spends less time halting and moving off from bus stops is liable to be less polluting.

Similarly, the University of Manchester has been working with Clicks + Links, to develop the BeeActive app that helps people achieve their daily walking goals. The app will detect when someone is a few stops away from their usual destination and then “nudge” them to get off the bus and walk to work, especially if the app has identified that walking might be a quicker option.

We all know what a traditional map is, but in this data-fuelled time, “location” becomes a data point for machine use. Think of a driverless vehicle. It simultaneously needs to communicate with its occupant(s) and every relevant piece of infrastructure, including surrounding vehicles: a massive challenge if they are also using different computer languages.

In a world empowered by this data, we’re also confronted with the paradox of ownership and permissions. We share a great deal about ourselves openly through networking sites such as Facebook, but withhold the same information from public authorities. We accept terms and conditions without paying any real attention and leak information that might actually horrify us (If you have an iPhone, check apple settings > privacy > location services > system services > Frequent Locations to see where your phone thinks you spend your time).

Regulation is in place to help with privacy, but as data becomes more integrated, anonymity becomes harder to guarantee. It’s not just places which need to be smarter, but also we, their inhabitants.


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.

To find out more about how you can become involved in Prospect’s thought leadership programmes, please contact saskia.abdoh@prospect-magazine.co.uk.

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