Interview: Andrew Carr of the Digital Catapult talks about the Data City, Data Nation initiative to explore the possibilities of sharing data for innovation
A lot of people in urban authorities are becoming interested in the idea of smart cities, even those with a limited understanding of what they involve and how they can be built.
There is a growing appreciation that it involves data as much as devices, that the flow and combination of information will be as important as the hardware on which it is collected. There are also plenty of ideas on how to use it, and a need for an environment in which to test them.
Which is where London’s recently announced initiative with Singapore, Data City, Data Nation, comes in. Working with the Digital Catapult, the centre backed by InnovateUK to support businesses working on new uses for data, and technology company Newton Circus, the two cities are making data available for a “data sandbox” open to business and public services organisations from the beginning of next year.
It will involve opening up billions of data points and has the potential to include perspectives from two metropolitan areas with different characters – the capital city of a densely populated country, and an independent city state that has one of the world’s most robust economies.
Andrew Carr (pictured), chief operating officer of the Digital Catapult, says the aim is to give people with ideas on building smart cities the raw material with which to test them. The sandbox will draw on the London Datastore 2, which provides access to data on a range of issues including health, crime, employment and carbon emissions, along with government data from Singapore, and from industrial partners in area such as utilities, transport and insurance.
This is all going to be used for a number of activities to promote data sharing and collaboration, encouraging start-up businesses in the field and providing insights for investment in smart cities.
“We’re trying to bring together two sets of nation’s data in a single clean environment, then set specific challenges over a six month period that will bring innovators, data scientists and the start-up and scale-up community to innovate on top of two nations’ data,” Carr says.
“There is an element that is the London Datastore and government data from Singapore, but we’re also inviting industrial partners to share some data they haven’t previously published to allow out the insights from closed and open data together, to try to spin out new innovations around specific challenges in healthcare, transport, energy and safety.
“We want to run a number of activities that we hope will encourage greater collaboration, greater data sharing to demonstrate the value in mixing and sharing closed data for the benefit of innovators, start-ups and scale-ups, and give us some useful insights moving forward as the UK continues to invest in smart cities.”
The programme will involve a number of open calls to bring interested parties together around a series of challenges, which are still to be decided, and if they go no further should at least provide some useful data on dealing with the relevant issues.
Sensitivity and trust
One of the challenges for the organisers is to persuade holders of proprietary data – effectively the private sector – to open it up for sharing. Given the commercial sensitivities this could be a stiff task, and there will be a further issue in obtaining permission for the use of any personal data. Trust will be a big part of the equation.
But Carr says these could lay the foundations of a marketplace for data from myriad of sensors and devices that form the internet of things (IoT), and that this would encourage future innovation. He talks about creating “a single source of truth”, which could evolve from the sandbox and is constantly updated and refreshed with new data points.
“It’s something that will only evolve once it’s tested by the data and tried a number of times,” he says.
“The first thing as the UK we want to do is increase the number of start-ups around data that scale successfully and grow quickly. They need the ability to access demonstrators, testbeds, sources of data that allow them to evaluate new products and solutions and get to market quicker so the UK can lead in the digital areas.”
Small nation advantage
Singapore provides advantages in being a small nation which is advanced in the use of the IoT and provides a sound environment to test devices and data. But London brings another element in its scale, and in hooking up to work done in other Digital Catapult centres in Bradford, Brighton and Sunderland.
Carr says the potential for expansion into other cities and regions is an important element of the programme, and that it could do a lot to encourage collective learning and reduce any duplication of effort.
“We don’t like building things twice for the same outcome,” he says. “What we can do here is establish a programme and blueprint that we could bring out centres across the UK into, and could bring cities and regions into the programme so we could all learn collectively.”
Over the next six months the programme leaders are going to concentrate on devising the challenges, then the long haul begins in persuading more data owners to open it up. It will take time to see whether the results amount to a handful of lessons or the basis for a range of solutions to urban problems, but the international partnership should provide a mix of perspectives that makes it an interesting one to watch.