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One small leap

Many cities have opened their data to provide more insight into city operations, but the next step is to make the leap to true data economies, by Sarah Wray


Geoff Snelson bringing the magic of Milton Keynes to Yinchuan, China at a TM Forum event
Geoff Snelson bringing the magic of Milton Keynes to Yinchuan, China at a TM Forum event

In 2013, a McKinsey report found that open data and shared data from private sources could unlock up to $5 trillion a year of additional value across the global economy. Four years later, we have seen some early examples of what’s possible, such as Citymapper, but progress overall has been patchy.

Many cities have opened their data to provide more insight into city operations. However, the next step is to make the leap to true ‘data economies’.


This means engaging the private sector to innovate on top of the data. The idea is that this will enable the city to better tackle its urban challenges on a stretched budget; businesses can create new products and business models; and, ultimately, citizens get better services.


Some cities are striking out to lead in this area but there are still challenges to tackle – not only technical, but also cultural and even ethical.



Just because you build it


At the heart of Milton Keynes’ smart city drive is its Data Hub – “a city-wide infrastructure for exchanging and creating things with data”. As the city has found, though, putting this in place is just the beginning.


Geoff Snelson, Director of Strategy & Futures, Milton Keynes Council, says the focus now is “curating an ecosystem” to make the best use of that data. He said: “You need to get credibility for your data store by having content there, but we understood quickly that engagement with SMEs and developers is really important in shaping and driving the sorts of information we sought to gather and provide for them.”


He explained: “Most of the SMEs that we engaged with already had an idea about the data they needed; they weren’t just wandering around looking for inspiration and creative ideas, although you’ve got to allow for a bit of that of course.”


For example, the city realised more real-time data feeds and wider scale sensor deployments were crucial.



What’s the value?


The Data Hub pulls in data about movement in the city, including pedestrian and vehicle flow, and bus occupancy levels, etc. This data has been used to create a route-planning app (MotionMap) for citizens, a demonstration of the type of innovation that’s possible.


However, Snelson notes that it’s still early days when it comes to commercial models -- the initiative needs to be fully tested first to ascertain that it works and whether and how people are using it, as well as whether they’d be willing to pay for it, etc.


“We have to go through the process of demonstrating all that more fully before we step into commercial territory,” he said.


In the same way, offering the ability to trade and pay for data through the Data Hub platform are also in the pipeline but not a priority for now. Snelson said: “Most of this stuff is at the stage of exploration and development. We don’t want to kill innovation by starting to charge for the data before it’s really understood where the value is and what the market is.”


Milton Keynes hit its initial target of engaging 90 SMEs with the Data Hub. The next phase is launching CityLabs, a business accelerator programme with the Open University, ZTE and Fronesys to support companies to develop concepts into prototypes for new products and services in the digital economy using the MK Data Hub.



One city is not a market


As well as high-quality, real-time data, rich in volume and variety, another key factor that will attract developers and SMEs to get creative with data and solve city challenges is the ability to ‘develop once, deploy many times’. This benefits cities and citizens too as it speeds up time to market and reduces cost.


This is an area the City of Tampere in Finland is focused on. It is collaborating with other cities in Finland and globally to agree standards for open platforms, open data and open interfaces to enable this innovation portability.


By 2025 Tampere has targets for citizens to mostly use digital tools for city services and to reduce its cost of delivering services. Jarkko Oksala, CIO, City of Tampere, said: “We want to be one of the leading cities in the digital area and we are very motivated to make a change. This is being driven by the Mayor.”


Oksala cites Vainu, a fast-growing start-up, as a good example of how a business can be created using data – and scaled. It offers the ability to: “Identify the most valuable sales prospects to your business from a database of +108 million companies enriched with open data.”


From here, he sees the greatest potential for innovation in the area of transportation and expects to see a business built on Tampere’s city data in this area very soon.


Tampere is in the “learning phase” at the moment, Oksala says, but as things progress he sees the role of the city not only as providing access to data but also actively providing challenges for ecosystem partners to come up with new solutions. “We want to speed up the collaboration,” he commented.


Organisational change management is also crucial, he notes: “As you bring new technologies and methods into use, you really need to change the culture. We are very focused on this but it’s taking time.”



Getting there


At its Smart City InFocus event, held in China’s Yinchuan in September, TM Forum launched its City as a Platform Manifesto alongside an accompanying ‘blueprint’ for technical implementation, aimed specifically at moving cities towards supporting data economies.


Carl Piva, Head of TM Forum’s Smart City Forum, says the approach, “takes aspects of the success of platform businesses such as Alibaba and Airbnb and adapts them for a smart city context,” acknowledging that, “cities have a different mission to businesses.”


It’s clear that maintaining this balance between financial considerations and remaining true to the city’s role is something that’s very important to leaders as they navigate the next leap in data-driven government. This was neatly exemplified in a presentation in Yinchuan by Ted Ross, General Manager and CIO, City of Los Angeles.


He shared how in LA, two hours each week on many streets is blocked off for street sweeping. During this time, the street is unavailable for parking. Even if the street sweeping is complete within the first five minutes of the closure period, the street will remain closed. If people park there they will receive a ticket.


The city is piloting an initiative that uses the GPS in the street sweeping vehicles. Residents are notified via mobile app when the work is complete so that they can park. Traffic officers are notified too so they know not to issue parking tickets.


Ross said, “We estimate the City of Los Angeles will be losing [up to]$11.8 million of revenue per year [if the initiative is rolled out across the city]. Well, good for us. Because when it’s all said and done, government is not there to raise revenues; government is there to deliver a service.”





So, with growing city challenges, increasing commitment to getting to the next level with data and new tools in place, the question is when are we likely to see more progress?

According to Piva: “I think it’s reasonable to assume this will take a couple more years then we’re going to see some real achievements. Then it will still take three to five years before it’s mainstream after that.”



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