Blue tone city scape and network connection concept; Blue tone city scape and network connection concept;

If you know the right questions and understand the risks, data can help build better cities

Mobile devices have explosively transformed the digital environment as we know it, putting power into the hands of individual consumers. One of the key elements sitting behind this transformation is data.

Data is incredibly important in how end users experience their environment, do their work and live their lives. It’s about people, as opposed to being about machines or systems.

With people at the centre of the data jigsaw, it’s easy to understand why so many are getting on board the data train – businesses, governments at all levels, large developers, transport operators, people developing or modifying precincts and mixed use environments...the list goes on.

They see that with data comes opportunity and commercial solutions.

Sharing data enables new experiences to be built which people will enjoy and that will benefit their lives. Opening up data acknowledges that data is providing the building blocks for a new economy.

Take something as ubiquitous as the weather. We check a weather app to determine what we will do or wear, other apps access the weather information from the Bureau of Meteorology (or elsewhere) and they use that to create new value, a new output, such as choosing alternate seats at a venue if rain is predicted, or adjusting travel time to a certain area.

City of Melbourne runs an Open Data Platform which geo-locates every tree, rubbish bin, and parking space in the city. Anyone in the world can access this information, and a number of government agencies, universities, and organisations are using this data right now to inform future decisions for the city – whether that be at a policy level, a plan or something to implement.

Opportunity vs risk

While the opportunities are seemingly endless (see case study 1: Vodafone), when it comes to sharing data and allowing open access data platforms, there is a need for caution.

Privacy, identity theft, and reliability of data are just some of the key risks we need to be mindful of when it comes to sharing and curating data.

When you make data available, you need to understand how that data is being used, who is using it, if the structure of the data has been changed and myriad other considerations. Curation is important but with it comes the need for vigilance and a very open approach to labelling how the information has been curated and what it potentially means for various people.

People will want access to the raw data wherever they can, or at the very least they will need to understand the pipeline of processing that has been undertaken in that data by the time they have access to it, so they can better apply their own analysis to that data to achieve the right outcome. App developers want to know data is reliable enough for them to build a robust application or perhaps a business.

An additional side effect of the data revolution is our ‘digital lint’ is growing greater and broader which has positive and negative implications. ”

Greg Stone Greg Stone Global Head of Corporate Development

On the one hand, there is a liberation that comes with new opportunities to create value from data, but on the other hand there is a loss of control that individuals have about the way data can be used – perhaps even against them.

This tension will grow over time. On the face of it, we should make as much data available publicly as possible; but the more data you get, the more you can correlate that data into something that identifies individuals, or in the case of security provides the processor with a richness of understanding and as a result we can be analysed in ways we might not particularly like.

What's next?

But out of risk or challenge often comes opportunity and as new projects in our cities are being enriched with digital experiences like never before (such as wayfinding, seamless connectivity via large touch screen displays and so on), we are tackling these challenges head on with some clever ideas (see case study 2: Sydney light rail).

Data needs to sit behind a very easy to access and well managed API (Application Programming Interface) which enables developers to plug and play with data easily, and also allows a safe and secure separation between the owners, curators and those who seek to use it. This allows them to focus their efforts on the sort of data that is most useful for the community and measure that by the way it’s used. In terms of what the future holds for the data story, end users will still have the power in their hands.

Case study 1: Vodafone in Wales

Arup used mobile data to understand the travel patterns of people from home to their ultimate destination at work – which completely changed the way the road design was planned.

Historically there have been certain ways to determine people’s routes from where they live to place of work. But when we analysed the data we found the routes people took involved activities like dropping off kids to childcare or picking up other people. The journeys weren’t simple straight lines and when we understood this in detail, it enabled a much more optimised highway design that met the needs of people.

Case study 2: Light rail project in Sydney

To overcome the challenges associated with numerous trades’ and providers’ installation schedules clashing, Arup built models that brought in all data from different providers (such as electricity, council, telco, road, etc) and helps them to understand over a period of time where the clashes are. Being able to work around each other ensures they don’t cause discomfort for people in surrounding areas and also ensures a streamlined approach to these providers completing their work.