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Smart cities need data geeks, says Policy Exchange

15/01/16

Think tank report highlights devolution's potential and calls for offices of data analytics and data marketplaces

Elected mayors should be required to set up an office of data analytics comprising of small, expert teams tasked with using public and privately held data to create smarter cities, according to a new report from the Policy Exchange think tank.

Titled Smart Devolution, it says that devolution and smart cities go together, and that as mayors take on new powers they will need to make better use of data to identify problems and improve services.

It makes a number of recommendations, including that each mayor should set up a team of data analytics specialists to support work in the field, and create a city data marketplace for buying, selling, requesting and freely exchanging data.

Eddie CopelandEddie Copeland (pictured), author of the report, said: “Data will be fundamental to the success of city devolution and smarter cities. Yet most cities lack the ability to join up, analyse and act upon the vast quantities of data they already have. By establishing an office of data analytics, cities will also improve the quality and reliability of their open data.

“Devolution provides city mayors with a great opportunity to break down the data silos that exist between different local authorities and public sector bodies.

"With 80% of Brits residing in urban areas and the population of our cities ever increasing, it is vital that our cities become smarter to cope with growing pressures on public services, transport and housing.”

The report says that UK government is currently too fragmented to support the development of smart cities, which use internet connected devices and data to run more efficiently and minimise any environmental damage. But an elected mayor could provide a single political authority to coordinate smart programmes.

Funding advantage

There would also be more scope for funding in city-wide pots, and the change would provide an opportunity to install data leaders such as chief analytics officers. Also, city devolution would give their leaders the chance to make smart initiatives relevant to areas such as policing, transport and housing.

Cities should begin by developing their ability to use existing data, which would then equip them to handle the exponentially greater volumes coming from the massive growth in connected devices.

The prime recommendation reiterates a policy advocated by other sources, that UK cities should follow the lead of New York in creating a data analytics office, led by a chief analytics officer reporting directly to the mayor. They would lead the work in areas such as open data, requesting datasets from central government and setting up city data marketplaces. The latter would help to unlock, correctly price and stimulate demand for data from within and outside the public sector.

Central government should provide support by setting up a team responsible for “data devolution”, providing access to datasets to support the city teams, but the latter would also be required to provide data on how their authorities are delivering against their objectives.

Among the other recommendations are that:

  • Cities should proactively seek to harness private sector data to deliver policy priorities.
  • Individuals or organisations using a city data marketplace should provide evidence that they comply with the Information Commissioner's Office Anonymisation Code of Practice.
  • The offices of data analytics should collaborate with universities and groups such as the Open Data Institute and Innovate UK's Catapult bodies.
  • Data networks should be recognised as vital underlying infrastructure.

The Policy Exchange also highlights examples of how data could make cities smarter. One is to combing heavy goods vehicle routes with data from cyclists' mobile phones to help prevent accidents, while another is to use data to show where visitors to a city come from and how much they spend, helping companies to focus their advertising.

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