Last Friday I was at Newcastle City libary at a roundtable event talking about “innovative uses of data in the North East”. It was fun. I thought it might be useful to share some high level notes.

Discussion points and attendees

The agenda had the following discussion points :

  • What can Newcastle do to become a genuinely ‘smart city’?
  • Could the North East region become a leader in open data?
  • How can the intelligent use of data improve the quality of life for people in the North East?
  • What lessons can be learnt from other cities around the world?

A range of attendees of differently sized organisations from both the public and private sector were in attendance:

Cobweb Information, Digital Catapult, Digital Leaders Northeast, Digital Union, Dynamo Northeast, Escher Group, , FSB Northeast, FutureGov, Geek Talent, Google, Google Deepmind, Middlesbrough Borough Council, Newcastle City Council, Newcastle City Futures, Newcastle University, North East Data Community, North East England Chamber of Commerce, Open Data Institute (me), TechUK, Teeside University, TechNorth. [Apologies if I missed any organisation/individual! Let me know and I’ll add/correct :)]

The session started with presentations from Newcastle City Council, Google and Newcastle City Futures

The event started off with a presentation from Joyce McCarty the deputy leader of Newcastle City Council. Joyce talked about the council’s responsibility to tackle inequality and need to share some data to deliver public services. She said that digital is how people run their lives nowadays and that some people struggled to get online to get benefits. Newcastle was an early adopter of superfast broadband and has funded free wi-fi across the city. Councils in the area are considering what role data should play in any deal for the devolution of power and control from Westminster to the North East. Joyce said that spaces like Google Garage — based within Newcastle city library — were important. They helped connect the council and innovaters so that they can learn from each other. The world will keep changing. Newcastle Council wants everyone to have the same opportunities and be able to benefit.

Andrew Eland from Google talked about the Google Mobility project to help tackle urban mobility using data. The project started off with a question “rather than telling people where there is congestion, can’t we tell people how to reduce it?”. It uses data published as open data by cities or provided by people using Google’s services. Google quickly learnt that they needed to provide cities with data which is accurate, private and useful. As Andrew said that they are now realising that “it’s not just about knowing the data about mobility, it’s about being able to change the infrastructure to act on what the data tells you”. The next question that Google might tackle could be “What does dynamic steel and concrete infrastructure that responds to data look like?”. I asked Andrew when the project would publish aggregated data as open data so that anyone could use it for any purpose. Perhaps combining the data with other sets about walking or cycling, like that published by Strava Metro, so that people could optimise city transport infrastructure for different modes of transport. I was told that the release of the Google Mobility product would be in about 6–12 months, Andrew said that he expected it to include walking and cycling data but was not able to confirm that Google would be able to release it as open data.

Mark from Newcastle City Futures talked about their vision of thinking about the whole place of Tyneside and bringing together communities to create a place that is owned and shared by people in the city and delivers innovation. He talked about the challenges Newcastle faces: an ageing population and a region where are 20% of the workforce are employed by the public sector at a time when significant cuts are being made to public expenditure. He said that Newcastle, and the North East, needed to think about governance, trust, how to reduce institutional overlap, how to think beyond five year electoral timescales and how to focus on delivering collaborative projects. Mark said that Newcastle City Futures had identified 20 potential projects in the last 8 weeks.

The roundtable talked about language, economics and building with communities

The roundtable started by talking about language and how ‘smart cities’ can seem exclusive and technocratic. Attendees discussed how we need to be as open as possible and build public services that meets people’s expectations.

We discussed the dividing line between the public and private sector. How cities could provide basic infrastructure to support innovation and make space for anyone to be creative. There was talk of fiscal devolution and the challenges it can cause when the beneficiaries of change sit in different departmental or organisational silos. Some people talked about creating commercial benefits through data sharing and by selling aggregated public sector data. I disagreed. The evidence says that public sector open data creates more value than paid data. We should try and build a better future, not replicate existing silos.

The room discussed different models for creating change and better use of data. Manchester’s approach is based on data sharing within the public sector preserving existing organisational bodies. Defra’s approach was to create culture change by setting a large target for open data release that made the organisations (or silos) within Defra work with each other and external stakeholders.

The consensus in the room seemed to be that the North East would benefit from something more ground up. As someone said “We do innovation and education really well. Let’s forget smart cities and focus on smart citizens.”

We reflected on the high ‘leave’ vote in the EU referendum in the North East and that many of the people that voted to leave the EU felt that the internet and technology was not a force for good. If Newcastle council believes, as I do, that these are a force for good then maybe it should look beyond physical infrastructure — like broadband and wifi — and help more people receive their benefits?

The roundtable ended by discussing Chicago’s approach to engaging citizens with data and technology. The city funds an organisation that sits outside the public sector, holds it to account, and builds capabilities with schools and existing community organisations. As best as I could tell no existing non-technical community organisations were in the roundtable but perhaps the approach used by Chicago may help create the kind of region that North East residents want?

(We didn’t have time to talk about the ODI Leeds approach)

What’s next?

As I said at the beginning: the roundtable was fun. There were differing opinions but a consensus that digital and data can be used to help build a future that meets the needs of the people that live and work in the North East.

From my own experience in the North East and from listening to the thoughts of Newcastle Council and Newcastle City Futures I suspect that the North East would welcome an open future.

There are many things that can help get to that future. There is no single right answer that will work in every city, region or nation.

Personally I’m looking forward to the next meeting to see what’s been tried, what’s been delivered and what lessons have been learnt!