Tag: Cities

The bumpy road to economic and social value

I moved to Newcastle in the North East of England last year. It’s a great place, but one of the things that first struck me about the town was the roads. There’s a motorway right through the town centre. It makes me think of tech and data, and the need to broaden the debate.

Roads for prosperity

Aerial view of the construction of the Central Motorway and Swan House roundabout, estimated to be in 1971. Image via The Evening Chronicle

When we were looking for a place to live we stopped in a few hotels near the town centre. They were on both sides of the motorway.

One side is full of shops, restaurants, cinemas, theatres and bars. The other is full of newly built university accomodation. There’s some rather strange, and a bit scary when it’s late and you’re tipsy…, skywalks connecting the two.

The motorway was opened in 1973 and was controversial at the time. Unsurprising when, as Professor Mark Tewdwr-Jones of Newcastle University says, “school playing fields and houses were…demolished”.

Glasgow motorways, courtesy of Google Maps and their various data suppliers

It was built following the Traffic in Towns report by Professor Sir Colin Douglas Buchanan. The report focussed on the growth in road traffic by cars, and the potential economic benefits that could be gained by supporting it.

Traffic in Towns was later followed by a 1989 government white paper, called The Roads for Prosperity, that followed the same tracks. Both reports gave a higher emphasis to inreasing road use and cars than to reducing environmental impact or other transport options, such as mass public transit or walking. They were design standards for urban transport. Their priority was economic growth.

Urban planners in other UK cities, like Birmingham and Glasgow, followed the same reports and the standards they set. Existing communities were again displaced or affected by roads that were built. A similar story happened in countries and cities across the world. Sometimes earlier, sometimes later.

New York City in the 1920s, Beijing in the 2000s

From the 1920s Robert Moses rebuilt New York City to favour car users as part of larger urban transformation plans. He constructed highways, bridges and parkways that cut through the city and surrounding regions to get cars to where they wanted to be. Debate over the impact of these decisions on communities, and whether Robert Moses’ politics and racism played a part in his decisions and the type of road uses he favoured, continues to this day.

Robert Moses had set the standard, other people followed his lead. Urban planners across the USA built roads that favoured road users and impacted on existing communities living in or near their path.

Beijing smog via a post by Marco Rinaldi

Many decades after Robert Moses, and as part of its preparation for the 2008 Olympics, Beijing refurbished 200 miles of roads and built two additional ring roads.

I was there in 2003 and remember standing in a hutong neighbourhood due for demolition. A resident showed me the straight lines on the map indicating where new roads were being built, and the lanes, streets and houses underneath that were either being demolished or left with greater air and noise population.

The potential benefits to be gained from the new roads had been decided to be greater than the current needs of the people who lived in Beijing. This wasn’t just about the Olympics. As part of the transition from the communist system under Mao Zedong to the market socialist / state capitalist society of current China there were similar infrastructure changes happening elsewhere across the country.

People push back

In each of these cases central authorities had decided that the potential economic gains outweighed the negative impact on people and communities without involving them in the process. People protested at the time but over the years the push back became more effective. It ended up changing the way we plan.

Anyone who followed the environmental protests in the UK in the 1990s will remember Swampy. (image copyright Reuters, I think).

In the UK there were growing protests against road developments during the 1980s and 1990s with calls for integrated transport solutions that considered different types of users like car, bus, rail, freight, bicycles and pedestrians and a reduced impact on the environment.

Gradually UK urban and road planning guidelines were changed to include the need for public consultation and the consideration of societal impacts like air quality, noise or other environmental issues. We now consider more viewpoints and needs before a decision is a made.

In parts of the USA change happened earlier. Jane Jacobs was one of the most famous figures amongst the groups in New York City arguing against Robert Moses’ plan to redevelop Greenwich Village in the 1950s and 1960s. She was part of the Joint Committee to Stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway, the ‘slum’ clearances it proposed and the decrease in air quality that it was forecast to generate. The Committee eventually won. Jane Jacobs started to formalise her thinking on urban planning in the book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. It argued for a new standard for urban design which shifted the emphasis towards the people who lived in the city.

A nail house in Hongkou, picture by Drew Bates. CC-BY-2.0.

In China, the most visible protests against the new roads and urban transformationm were ‘nail houses’, stubborn holdouts against the change. This became possible due to the strengthening of private ownership rights in the post-Communist era. In some cases the holdouts are people who don’t believe the public interest in this development outweighs their own interests, in others it will be speculative investors looking to profit from the public investment.

The parallels to tech and data

I work in the world of data policy at the Open Data Institute. We’re based in the UK but work globally.

I believe data, and large parts of what we call the technology or digital sector, are becoming infrastructure, just like roads became infrastructure in the past. This means that we need to think strategically and for the long-term. The effects of the decisions that we make today will persist.

A clip from one of the boss’s talks on the challenges of strengthening data infrastructure.

One of the things I’ve been doing over the last few years is reading about the history of technology-driven change. Things like the wireless, telephone, radio and roads. The web and internet have helped us communicate over a larger scale and at much faster speeds than previously, but we are still humans. We can learn from our history and the stages technology goes through as, or if…, it gets adopted. Perhaps by learning more historical lessons we can go through those stages faster and make better decisions than before.

An important of this process is how we moved from infrastructure decisions made solely by technocrats, whether in companies or in governments, to decisions being made with society and through our democratic processes. Unfortunately technology and data is currently stuck in the world of the technocrats with very little public involvement. We have more progress to make, otherwise the protests and bumps on the roads will get bigger.

We need to broaden the conversation, and open things up

We need to have broader conversations about technology.

This will be particularly important with data. Most data is about people, and multiple people at that. Our DNA reveals information about our parents, family and even our distant relatives. Utility bills reveal who we live with. Health records contain information about medical professionals as well as ourselves. Data is about us, our families, communities and society.

When we learn how to design services for multiple people then we will have to think about their different interests and rights & how they might compete with each other.

Yet, most internet services, and much current data regulation, are designed for individuals, particularly those who are currently online. That’s part of why technology can feel uncomfortable for many. It doesn’t match much of our societies. Rather than reflecting the richness and variety of communities and societies around the world tech is bringing in the political beliefs and cultural values of the people who built it.

As the French government showed with the Digital Republic Bill, and UK organisations like DotEveryone and the Carnegie Trust are exploring, engaging the public in decisions about technology is complicated but possible. We need more politicians and large technology companies around the world to embrace this approach.

We need to have broader and more open conversations that allow the public to both take part in and influence the outcomes of the current debates about technology. We need to go beyond technology experts to include a range of other experts and the people, businesses and communities who could be beneficially or negatively impacted by a decision. They will have different opinions, and different societies will choose to give those opinions different weights, but learning from the range of views and how they develop during a debate will help us make better decisions.

As societies learnt when we were building roads the debate can’t be left to technocrats solely focussed on economic gains, it needs to be opened up to the public so that we can also debate societal values.

City data marketplaces are a distraction, let’s improve data infrastructure

I chaired a debate at the Open Data Institute (ODI) titled “What does a good data market look like?” on 29 April. It was a timely debate.

Data is infrastructure at city, national and global levels. It is vital to our societies. It is important to strengthen it. Stable, reliable and well-maintained data infrastructure helps us make better decisions, it brings us new services and it supports innovation.

There are voices arguing that we need to move beyond the open data portal. Nesta have argued that the Mayor of London should build a city data marketplace and Hitachi are building one in Copenhagen.

At the ODI we are keen to learn — and to share what we learn — so we arranged a debate to discuss the idea of a city data marketplace. The panellists were Eddie Copeland the Director of Government Innovation at Nesta; Leigh Dodds a founder of Bath:Hacked and ODI associate; and Yodit Stanton the founder of Open Sensors, a startup building IoT data infrastructure. Questions were taken from the audience in the room whilst those watching the live-stream asked questions via the #ODIFridays hashtag.

Chairing the debate firmed up my views.

A city data marketplace is just another centralised website, we need to move beyond that model and improve how we can discover data on the web. At the same time we can build a better market for data and spend more time experimenting and learning about the role of governments and cities in that market. A better market for data can help strengthen our data infrastructure.

Better and more open data infrastructure will help both cities and the organisations that work in them solve problems and deliver services.

A city data marketplace is different to a market for data

A city data marketplace has previously been described as “an online marketplace that connects organisations and individuals that have useful data with those that want it.”. During the debate it was also described as an “appstore for data” and a “TaskRabbit or eBay for data”. The marketplace would support both open data and data shared for a fee. It would support data publication and exchange between the public and private sector. A city data marketplace is in one place, on one platform and focussed on a city.

The data spectrum.

By contrast, the market for data uses the web where organisations publish data and APIs. The market for data supports the full data spectrum. Like the city data marketplace it includes both open data and data shared for a fee; and supports data publication and exchange between the public and private sector. The traditional open data portal helps people discover public sector open data in the market for data but the market for data is mostly decentralised, just like the web. The market for data already exists.

Data marketplaces have failed before

Leigh Dodds shared his experience as product manager of a company that tried and failed to build a sustainable data marketplace.

He related the tale of multiple other organisations that have tried or failed with only those focussed on specific sectors, such as social media data, living to tell the tale. The debate did not surface other examples of successful data marketplaces, certainly not one that supported more than a single sector. A city supports multiple sectors.

The debate recognised that existing web publishing capabilities and search techniques were not always making it easy to find data in the market whether it be published by governments, city authorities or businesses.

Laura Koesten, a PhD student based at the ODI, is researching this problem. It is a hard one. As Benedict Evans has observed “All curation grows until it requires search. All search grows until it requires curation“.

There were some user needs that people thought weren’t being met by data portals

The debate discussed some user needs that existing open data portals may not be adequately meeting. I was unconvinced that a city data marketplace would help meet these needs any more than the existing market for data.

Even seemingly simple needs such as discovery are affected by a number of factors including the literacy of the person searching for data and how the data has been described during publishing.

More complex needs such as sharing a common problem to get others to help fix it — whether the problem be in banking, housing, jobs or education — is similarly complex. It requires a range of on and offline activities that can take years to complete. Whole new institutions might need to be built to fully address a problem.

There is a team at the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS) that are researching the user needs for the data.gov.uk portal. Opening up that research and considering it alongside research on city data portals will help everyone learn more about what needs exist so we can design better services to meet them.

The role of government was unclear

The panel discussed the role of government. The views included government building and hosting a city data marketplace, using the marketplace to publish its own data, using the marketplace to buy data, encouraging use of open standards and recognising that the data that government holds is data that it holds on behalf of society.

In general, the role of government in a data marketplace or a market for data was under-discussed. As the chair I take full responsibility as we ran out of time! I think this would have been the most important bit of the debate.

I believe we need to think harder about government’s role

Our governments have chosen to actively shape technology markets: for example by encouraging the uptake of open standards and open source. They are also being active by choosing to use and publish open data.

The UK government, like many around the world, recognises that “It is critical that businesses have the ability to create new and innovative products without being hampered by cost, by licensing conditions, or the inertia caused by uncertainty and doubt.”

But the plans in Copenhagen and the ones that Nesta have floated for London include a marketplace that helps people buy and sell data. Paid for data often has a licence that restricts how you can use it: for example some Surrey councils can’t publish planning applications as open data because of their data supplier. This reduces the value that people can create from the data. Governments and cities that are open-by-default should not be encouraging paid data models.

As Jeni Tennison recently said:

Using data to make a decision is like travelling on a series of roads. To get from point A to point B without open data is like stopping at toll booths at each road junction.

Some journeys you just wouldn’t want to make because they are too much of a pain. So some decisions you will not be able to make because that data is too difficult to access.

Perhaps people think it is necessary to pay to get the private sector to provide data but many businesses, whether it be large enterprises or startups like Guru Systems and Open Sensors, and, as Yodit pointed out, the customers of Open Sensors are making the same choice as governments. They choose to publish some data as open data as it helps their businesses grow, solve problems and deliver services.

Good governments and cities will, where it is useful, use this open data to improve their services. Better ones will go further and encourage more open data.

Government could encourage mobile phone operators to publish the aggregated footfall data that they use for network planning or credit card companies to publish aggregated consumer spend data that they already collected and aggregate. Cities could choose to encourage taxi firms or, in the future, driverless car operators to publish aggregated open data such as traffic congestion or road maps. More open and collaborative mapping models can reduce costs for businesses and the public sector.

To take London as a specific example: the Mayor has responsibility for transport. Wouldn’t aggregated open data from private sector transport firms help a city meet the needs of citizens regardless of who owns the tube train, bus, black cab, car, or bicycle they happen to use? A more efficient transport market is better for the citizens that use it, the public and private sector firms that provide services in it, and the politicians that have democratic responsibility for it.

By encouraging a more open data infrastructure governments and cities won’t just deliver more efficient public services they will support innovation, transparency and accountability; help everyone get better services and grow our economies in the process.

We need to think more about our market of data

I came away from the debate unconvinced by the idea of a data marketplace as it was described. I do not think that our market for data needs another centralised website owned by a single organisation. The web is at its best when it is as open and decentralised as possible, so is our data infrastructure.

The debate did help me deepen my thinking about the market for data and its importance for the future though. If we are to strengthen our data infrastructure and make it as reliable and open as possible, so that it can help support innovation whilst respecting better principles for personal data usage, then we do need to improve that market and encourage it towards openness. Rather than building city data marketplaces perhaps our cities should experiment and learn how to improve the market and their data infrastructure by getting open data out of more organisations and making it easier to discover.

I’d love to hear more thoughts on this topic and talk to other people thinking about and, ideally, helping build better markets for data and more open data infrastructures.

Drop me a note or leave a comment if you can help.

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