Smarter cities try to free data and clear snow
Potentially restrictive data protection laws; the measurement of trade-offs between spending on one public policy or another; and visualisation of city areas affected by snow are among technology-led experiments to emerge so far from the global IBM "Smarter Cities Challenge".
This month, Belfast City Council became the third UK city to win a "smarter cities" bid under which a team of consultants fly in, analyse a problem and produce a report on possible solutions making better use of data and technology.
Launched in 2011, the three-year project will have covered 100 cities worldwide by the end of 2013, offering pro bono consultancy worth a total of $50 million, or $400,000 per city. A team of six consultants carries out advance research on each city; flies in for three weeks to meet city leaders and local organisations and individuals and draft a report; and finalise a report for subsequent open publication online.
IBM conceived the project to align its corporate social responsibility work with its business strategy. The cities gain free consultancy and the company develops its key marketing themes - and possibly gains future paid work.
The Belfast project will look at how new ways might be found to use data to tackle the city's pockets of persistent disadvantage and sectarian division, promoting equal opportunities, improving local neighbourhoods and boosting tourism and foreign investment.
The other two UK cities to have won challenge grants in previous rounds are Glasgow and Birmingham. Glasgow's challenge - tackled in 2011 - was to review how fuel poverty could be tackled by using data to find households in greatest need and maximise the impact of interventions. Recommendations included boosting awareness of basic measures among citizens such as planning energy use; and targeting support at people automatically at key times in their life such as when they retire.
IBM UK's corporate citizenship manager Mark Wakefield told UKAuthority.com the Glasgow project identified some tricky issues about data ownership that need to be resolved if social issues like this are to be better tackled using data analysis.
"If you are the customer, is that your data? In fact, as soon as it goes into the meter, it becomes the property of someone else, and companies might say it is commercially sensitive or protected by data privacy. So some of the legislation in this area seems to work against the interests of the citizen." Glasgow council has now set up a working group to take forward the report's recommendations, Wakefield said.
This October Birmingham became the second UK city to receive a smarter cities visit, with a report now in production covering "the concept of cities as systems of systems". The project is looking to create conceptual maps matching data on service spending to outcomes across 19 service areas, with a view to working out how to best allocate the city's multi-billion pound annual budget.
"A lot of it is about making comparative judgments between areas of activity, where there are several organisations or parts of departments which have similar objectives and deliver them in different ways", Wakefield said. "For example, the city has an economic growth objective of creating jobs, and different parts of parts of Birmingham are working on delivering that. But do you put more money into attracting large scale employers in to the city, supporting and retaining jobs with those who are already there, or growing existing smaller businesses?"
The results of investment changes in each area can take many years to feed through, making the problem complex to solve, he said. "So you may argue that in times of hard expenditure the city should not spend so much on maintaining parks. But if you do that, the city potentially becomes a less attractive place to live and work - so are you going to be able to attract businesses in? Running a city involves lots of trade-offs, a lot of the time".
Other challenge projects worldwide have included traffic management (Nairobi, Kenya); 'smart grid' technology adoption (Geraldton, Australia); and an open data visualisation project in Helsinki, Finland, of which one example was a display combining the monitoring of snowfall with citizens' reports of streets in need of service.
Smarter Cities Challenge www.smartercitieschallenge.org