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Data at heart of smarter cities



IBM puts emphasis on exploring potential in relevant data and sharing insights

Technology and consulting giant IBM has kicked off a new round of its Smarter Cities challenge with an emphasis from its UK coordinator that data is the key element of the process.

The company is running the challenge globally for the fifth time with the promise of a free consulting project, worth about $500,000, for each of the successful applicants. Mark Wakefield, corporate affairs manager for the UK, said: "What's fundamental is how a city can use its data, and what data does or does not exist."

His words confirmed that IBM is riding the growing interest in public and private sectors in gleaning insights from data, combining a philanthropic element with the potential to make use of it in other business projects. Wakefield acknowledged the company gets a return from the process and described it as "mutual learning exercise".

The emphasis on data in a project is one of the main criteria for selection, along with the requirement that it has to deal with an issue that is already prominent on the city's agenda. The winners get the services of a team of IBM consultants for three weeks to come up with recommendations for using data to deal with the problem. These are followed by the drafting of an implementation plan.

The cities have to use their own resources, or find support from other sources, to act on the recommendations. But Wakefield says that Glasgow, the first in the UK to be chosen in 2011, provides an example of how it can produce results.

Its project was focused on dealing with rising rates of fuel poverty, and involved talking with more than 30 organisations and looking at all the available data. It led to a recommendation that people on low incomes should be directed to paying the lowest possible tariff, a policy which was followed and has reached the national agenda, and has made £1m a year available to help pensioners cope with the crisis.

Two other UK cities have won the challenge. Birmingham wanted to develop a predictive analytics tool to help in the allocation of resources. Wakefield says the IBM team confirmed the potential, but emphasised it would need a lot of time and resource to develop, and the plan is still being considered.

Belfast City wanted to investigate its results in providing interventions in different communities; a sensitive subject given the legacy of the Northern Ireland Troubles. The project team concluded that it needed to make more decisions based on objective data, and software systems that would make this possible and make comparisons easier.

It was well received by the council, which is planning a pilot of a system to manage impact data, and make more use of neighbourhood data. It is also aiming to set up an urban data reference group to support community planning.
Wakefield says the expertise often comes in identifying the value of data that is not already being used for analysis.

"People tend to think in terms of quantitative data, but there's also an important role for qualitative data and this is where some of our expertise lies," Wakefield says, adding: "Data can take a whole range of formats, and part of what we're doing is helping people understand that, the range of data they have, how to track it down, and sometimes understand where they don't have data and need to invest more in collecting it.

"Often data is owned by different entities, some of which are not controlled by the city. If it's aggregated and analysed it can provide some fundamental insights into what's happening in the city.

"Sometimes it might be appropriate to classify it as big data, but it might be as simple as sentiment analysis such as what residents are saying about a city."

Applications for the Smart Cities Challenge are being taken up 6 February. Contact Mark Wakefield at [email protected].

Pictured: "Glasgow harbour" by Robert Brown is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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