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Digital Transformation

Building better cities: Five trends in the use of data for social good

City stakeholders have always used data and information about people and activity to help make decisions to boost economic growth, productivity, welfare and health. How are new technologies, innovation and approaches being used to improve social good?

Kay Pitman, Thought Leadership Specialist
13 May 2022

City use of data is growing, but the digital divide remains

Jeremy Kelly is Global Research Director, City Futures at JLL. He explains: “With access to new technologies, innovations and digital solutions, cities are enabled to make smarter, more responsive and better-informed decisions. A lot of city stakeholders are getting really excited about the possibilities of the use of data. JLL’s Global Cities Research Centre tracks smart solutions in the broadest sense and the numbers of governments across the globe declaring their intention to make cities smart is quite staggering.”

Jane Wiseman is CEO of the Institute for Excellence in Government and an Innovations in Government Fellow at the Ash Centre for Democratic Governance and Innovation, Harvard University. She says, “with the daily reporting of covid numbers and positive test rates, we have all become much more accustomed to having data present in our everyday decision-making. For example, whether to go out, where to go, whether to wear our masks”. But there are parts of the US where broadband doesn’t exist, sectors of the population who can’t afford access or who do not have a capability or intent to engage digitally. In the US, the pandemic has highlighted this digital divide.

Cities with data strategies are the most successful

Dr Mark Livingston is Senior Lecturer in Urban Studies and Associate Director of the Urban Big Data Centre at the University of Glasgow. He says: “Cities need to identify their priorities and need to focus their data strategies on those priorities. There needs to be coherence across all the different departments in a city – a move away from silos.” In the UK, local authority strategy can be driven by short term vision that reflects electoral cycles, whereas they should be thinking about where they need to be in 10 – 15 years. Local authorities and governments need to think about their data strategy every time they consider making changes and implementing policy.

“There are huge opportunities to develop new and innovative forms of data to fill some of the gaps in our understanding”, Dr Mark Livingston says. “We need to get to grips with what we don’t know, and we need to start building strategies for collecting data to fill those knowledge gaps. One example where we don’t have good information is on mobility and activity in cities.” The Urban Big Data Centre has a project with Glasgow City Council that utilises surplus CCTV capacity to develop near real time activity data. The centre has developed AI generated models to count pedestrians, vehicles and cycles. That data is available to download within 30 minutes.

Jane Wiseman states: “There’s nothing more important than strategy, because if we don’t know where we’re going, we’re going to end up somewhere else.” She explains, “it’s important to establish what the data office will do. Are we about predictive analytics and machine learning? Are we about performance data? Are we about algorithmic ethics?”

With access to new technologies, innovations and digital solutions, cities are enabled to make smarter, more responsive and better-informed decisions.

Jeremy Kelly
Global Research Director, City Future, JLL

Improved transparency and collaboration is essential

City governments and municipalities don’t necessarily have the resources to gather data themselves. Jeremy Kelly says city governments must see real estate owners, landlords and occupiers as city shaping partners. “There is a vast amount of data being collected on mobility and space usage. Strategies must embrace a broader universe of data.” Helsinki is one example of a city that has a strong public-private sector strategy and has leveraged private sector information to help the city become more productive and resilient. “Transparency of approach and usage also is really important”, he explains. Robust methodologies and approaches are needed to ensure the data is valid and accurate.

The real estate industry is concentrating on the climate emergency, but there is also a pivot underway towards greater responsibility for positive social outcomes, Jeremy Kelly explains. Data can be used to solve some societal issues around mobility, with the confluence of PropTech and MedTech. There are now over 8,000 companies across the globe delivering data driven solutions in the real estate sphere. “I think we will see the real estate industry stepping up more” he says.

“The ‘for social good’ part is so important” says Jane Wiseman. “In government we can think we know what the customer wants, but sometimes we get it wrong”. Civic engagement is extremely important, and digital tools are making this a lot easier, with the possibilities including digital town halls, survey tools and conversation platforms. Data democratisation is also important. As Jane Wiseman highlights the City of Long Beach, which runs data walks. They walk around and show citizens things like traffic cameras around the city and explain what data is collected and how that data is used. The walks provide both citizen education and the opportunity for them to provide the city with feedback on any concerns.

There’s nothing more important than strategy, because if we don’t know where we’re going, we’re going to end up somewhere else.

Jane Wiseman
Institute for Excellence in Government and Innovations in Government Fellow, Ash Centre for Democratic Governance and Innovation, Harvard University

Leading cities are developing data warehouses

Jane Wiseman explains: “The City of Boston Chief Data Officer brought together multiple data sources across the city in a citywide data warehouse. As Covid-19 struck, the office was able to rapidly bring together an internal decision-making dashboard and a public facing dashboard about Covid-19. The State of Virginia had done something similar in relation to the opioid crisis, and when the pandemic came, it was easy to get the right data sources aligned for executive decision-making.”

Where cities are making data available to their citizens, the best approaches provide guidance around use of the data. “In the UK, some local authorities are better than others. The best platforms not only make data available, but also guide people about the possible things the data could be used for, and encourages people to use it,” explains Dr Mark Livingston.

Data is not being used in a completely transformative way… yet

“There are many examples of cities using data at the operational level: to identify the street corners that are most in need of traffic calming or the neighbourhoods that need paint remediation to keep children safe. The only macro-level approach I’m aware off is Santa Monica, which realigned all of its performance management and service delivery to the wellbeing of its people”, says Jane Wiseman. Dr Mark Livingston agrees: “I think lots of cities are doing specific things very well – cities like Manchester or London. Very few are using data to completely transform.”

Lots of cities are doing specific things very well – cities like Manchester or London. Very few are using data to completely transform.

Dr Mark Livingston
Senior Lecturer in Urban Studies and Associate Director of the Urban Big Data Centre, University of Glasgow

Good data: How can data for social good build better cities?

How can data help us create more liveable cities, making them more resilient, inclusive and cost effective to run? What are the challenges in collecting, understanding, and making the best use of data to improve city citizens’ lives? From spatial computing, big data, AI to digital twins, our panellists as we discuss how cities can use data for social good?