26 April 2018

Smart Cities – the Data Obsession

Cities today are fascinated by data and the promise of its undiscovered riches. It’s a topic that is discussed endlessly but if you were to ask most cities how they would use that data, they wouldn’t have a clear answer. Data seems to be hailed as the panacea, but in reality there are only a handful of good use cases that really demonstrate how cities are benefiting from the data that they have.

Contrast that to tech start ups who are doing interesting things with data – consumer platforms that result in our city mappers or our sky scanners – great for consumers, providing us with useful information giving us choice and the ability to access that information at our fingertips, and the convenience this provides, and this of course brings some economic benefit creating jobs in those start ups.

But are these smart solutions really helping the city deliver services, reinforce their infrastructure or deliver more capacity on their networks as demand continues to increase?

Are we placing enough attention on the things that really matter?

I would suggest not, and therefore when we talk about Smart Cities and data enabled cities are we placing enough attention on the things that really matter? Or are we getting caught up in the excitement of entrepreneurial opportunity and the creative tech sector?

I was at a gathering recently of traffic managers and ITS engineers and for most of the cities represented, there were one or maybe two people whose job it was to manage traffic in their cities. Teams that were 5 or 6 only a few years ago, reduced to one solitary individual, and so when you talk to them about new technology or new tools they should be learning about, you might imagine how their eyes glaze over.

The solutions they need to help them with their work are highly engineered technical software solutions which have the ability to interact with hardware, rolling stock and city based assets that can help secure the safe running of their networks. And yes, these solutions are highly dependent on the use of data, but data that has a very specific purpose.

Smart cities are data informed, not data driven

So when we see small, data driven start ups now winning tenders to build cities and provide infrastructure, we have to ask ourselves, what is this obsession with data that is driving this trend? Smart cities are digitally enabled and data informed, not data driven.

The city authority is the statutory body, let’s work with them to deliver the services they need to deliver, invest in technological solutions that they so desperately need and let’s understand the new business models that will allow them to safely deliver these services in a financially constrained environment. And before we obsess more about the data, let’s think about the problems that cities need to solve by creating innovative solutions and worry less about ‘the nice to haves’.

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