The article by Jon Card – a discussion on Smart Cities and Data in the Guardian newspaper.
The capital has made major strides with open data initiatives. But questions remain about privacy, data ownership and the role of public and private sectors
London is winning plaudits for its open data initiatives, which proponents claim are changing how the city is governed and organised. But the benefits of the open data revolution aren’t confined to government. Advocates say it is also kickstarting a wave of enterprise and innovation around public sector data.
Last month, the Greater London Assembly (GLA) was named best publisher by the Open Data Institute (ODI), winning praise from world wide web creator Tim Berners-Lee.
The centre piece of their programme, the GLA’s London DataStore, created in 2010, contains over 500 free to use datasets in a range of formats, making it a valuable resource for developers and researchers.
“It started as a part of a drive to increase accountability in government and things like publishing public sector spending, but now we are much more about exploiting data,” says Andrew Collinge, assistant director of intelligence and analysis at the GLA.
“It’s also not just open data from government but also from NHS, power companies and utilities. For instance, there are about 170 million lines of data about domestic energy consumption.”
The London Schools Atlas, which maps every school in the capital, is another success story. It provides information on subjects such as catchment areas, feeder schools, travel times and, critically for planners, predicted rise in demand for places.
Collinge says making data available to the public isn’t that expensive, the DataStore, for instance, cost about £150,000 to establish. Furthermore, it is the businesses that bear the development costs while providing a service to the city.
But he adds there are still a lot of issues to overcome before the smart city can reach its potential. Other cities, such as New York, have an advantage over London in the way they are governed, which impacts upon data collection, according to Collinge: “We’ve got 33 boroughs in London who all operate in different ways and we aren’t that good at sharing data and are unable to solve big problems in the city as a result.”
One area where data is clearly having a major impact in the capital is transport. Shashi Verma, Transport for London’s director of customer experience, who runs the Oyster card system, says TfL has long been a “data driven organisation”, recording data since 1971 – initially using old IBM DEC systems.
For the past ten years TfL has run a research partnership with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to focus on how to exploit data and create predictive systems. This has enabled a big rethink of how resources are allocated and information is provided. Since then the Oyster travel card system has provided more information and Verma says Oyster data created two minutes earlier is available to him. TfL also provides real time information to customers on arrival times and journey lengths.
But the other big advance has been the growth of smartphones usage and this has meant releasing data to developers became the obvious choice. Verma says about 5000 developers are signed up to the TfL website and there are around 360 apps on the iOS App store using its data – the most notable being route planning app Citymapper, derives about 70% of its data from TfL data, Verma says. “The growth of apps meant making data available online was the most efficient way to exploit it. We can put it on our website for others to use and then that offsets our expenditure.”
The role of government
These initiatives raise questions about who should be creating these solutions and the role of the government. For some, the best way is for government to release as much data as possible and then let the developers do the rest.
However, Collinge argues that government should have far more say and influence than that. He says the public sector is proving itself to be capable of innovation and doing so within a tight budget. But also it has the expertise and knowledge to inform developers about the city’s problems. “It probably isn’t a fashionable point of view, but it’s a time for city governments to be much more deterministic about data. You need to provide people with datasets, but also say what government wants to do with it,” he says.
Freeing up data often shines a light on to human behaviour and therefore runs into one of the big issues of the day – privacy. Even something as seemingly innocuous as travel data can be seen as a step too far if people feel they are being tracked.
Last year, users of hired bikes in London, commonly known as Boris Bikes, may have been concerned to find out that data on TfL’s website used in conjunction with other datasets could be used to track individuals. TfL said the mistake was an “administrative error” and removed the information.
TfL’s Verma insists the error was a “one-off” and that the organisation has a good track record on protecting privacy. “The open data which is published is not private data. Oyster cards and congestion charge payments are private and we don’t publish any of that and it is kept under tight wraps. We don’t sell or share it; it’s treated as sensitive,” he says.
Collinge says privacy issues are preventing some projects from taking off, citing health as an example where data has to be kept under wraps. “There are about 400,000 people with diabetes in London and if you could use the data you could structure things much better,” he says. “There are a whole range of people who would love to address this problem, but can’t because of issues around privacy. The reason you don’t have much health data is that there are safeguards on patient data from the Department of Health,” he says.
Rudi Ball is a data scientist at Future Cities Catapult, which is working with businesses and academics on data-based ideas to reinvent urban environments. He says paying people to opt into data collection schemes could be a way to gather very specific and personal data without breaching their rights. “The privacy aspect and the anonymity of data are very important discussions. It’s a two-edge sword, there are great benefits to this if you do it the right way but terrible consequences if you do it the wrong way,” he says.
Ball, who has worked on data projects in other cities such as Singapore, is incredibly impressed by London’s progress. “London is the smartest city I know of. While other cities can be very good at collecting their data they often silo it. With London there’s a lot of open data on transport, economics and land use. There’s also the opportunity to fuse government with business data too,” he says.
Ball says projects such as Whereabouts London which show how Londoners live, not where are further examples of how data is changing the way we think about our cities. He’s hopeful that it could yield some answers for one of the capitals major issues – housing. He says datasets should be influencing planners as they can show the impact of new developments on the existing infrastructure and could prevent overcrowding and congestion.
But Ball says it’s still early days and much more is to come: “We are just seeing the tip of the iceberg with smart cities and there’s huge potential in this space.”
He adds: “Data analysis will soon play a far more important role in decision making on a day-to-day basis.”