We need to make smart cities and smart government real. To do so, we need to take city data seriously, and give shape to a complex marketplace.
An elderly man sits comfortably in his housing association flat. As usual, his son is having a busy day. Both are content that (aided by an integrated health and social care record) the support around him meets his increasingly complex daily needs. Recently installed sensors feed alerts to a change of routine. Carers can see from a tap-mounted sensor if dad is drinking enough. An app on the son’s phone suggests a daily heating plan, activated remotely. The overall effect is that dad can live independently for longer.
Across town, a couple take advantage of a new service that allows their very detailed, near live, energy consumption data to be audited for efficiency savings and packaged up to be used to explore deals and tariffs provided by a proliferating group of domestic energy providers. As a result, they may switch supplier for the second time this year.
I could keep the examples coming. Human stories; better services; smoothing peaks and troughs in energy demand; integrated infrastructure to make city assets whir where currently they creak. To carry on risks slipping into smart city ‘brochurism’. I’d rather consider how we make these examples realities.
It is complex. There are many actors – utilities, councils, housing associations, businesses – to consider. Beneath the sleek language of advancing digital technologies and social, environmental and economic outcomes, there are real people too.
In broad terms, smart technology needs to be programmed into urban planning, service design and procurement. We still want for city needs-led business models that inspire investor confidence – add together public sector, technology and procurement and investors are more likely to run a mile.
But it is the capacity of data to disrupt and promote new business models that we need to recognise. Love it or loathe it, Uber with its multi-billion dollar market capitalisation, has done this without ever owning a vehicle. Data is at its core.
So what do we do?
First, we improve city data supply. This is not about quantity. Open standards can guarantee the quality, uniformity and – in readiness for the true internet of things age – interoperability of data. Here, the 33 London Boroughs are important. From social care to refuse collection, we need uniform datasets so we can answer public policy problems which are unhindered by our administrative boundaries and innovate to find future service models. What will our first public sector Uber-type breakthrough be?
Linked, we need to share data securely. Recognised in this year’s Open Data Institute awards, the next iteration of the London Datastore will offer a secure environment in which to share much larger swathes of city data, so that the data scientists can swarm over it.
This will only be part of the message to a wider set of city data suppliers whose data – properly marshalled – can be of value to the city. Clear city data governance is needed. This must take account of the regulatory environments and motivations of, for example, an energy company, a developer or housing association.
The increased flow of personal data and the potential to create value for individuals and society requires Government to build trust with people still dubious of its ability to protect privacy. We need to say clearly what will be shared, with whom and to what end. We must then establish how citizens can control their data and consent to sharing of it.
So this is how it feels to me. The smart city market is at tipping point. City data – as a whole owned by no-one but in part always laid claim to by someone – is crucial to its success. This is exactly why standards, governance, an emphasis on secure sharing might not be to everyone’s taste, but along with a debate with citizens to build trust, simply must be tackled. If not, we run the danger of leaving city data’s true potential untapped, and leaving ourselves looking less than smart.