There’s a growing realisation that our personal data is being captured on an ever more detailed level. From when our heating goes on, to how many steps we have (or haven’t) run, to the times of day we travel to what we purchase once we arrive at our destination. To date most of this information has been held by a few major corporations, mostly for the refinement of their own services and devices, and to present us with ever more targeted advertising. But what if neighbourhoods could reclaim this data and harness it in a way that allowed them to respond to the needs of their community?
The neigbourhood goes digital
Right now, we generate vast quantities of data that remain largely underused in our local context. Imagine instead, being able to understand the daily impact your own home, businesses or car is having on the air quality of your local neighbourhood? Or imagine being able to understand how your local area could, with a few behavioural changes, make a meaningful contribution to net zero targets?
After the experience of Covid-19, the idea of a neighbourhood has come back into focus once more – it’s the new centre of work and life for many, and local issues are moving up the agenda as a result. Urban planners are beginning to see the neighbourhoods as a powerful and effective scale to turn personal data into valuable local outcomes.
A local ethos, not a technology
There are many issues that local administrations need to deal with, from air quality to social mobility where an evidence-led approach is vital. However, in many of these scenarios, either the data is held by the wrong party, not collected in a way that makes it useful, or the community has reservations about how and why their data is to be used. The ‘digital neighbourhood’ approach starts with a clearly defined local issue, one that can be addressed with shared data that is mutually beneficial to the community, private companies and public sector.
The digital neighbourhood is an approach to managing and using data to benefit the community; it is not an off-the-shelf product. The process fundamentally needs to be driven by and respond to the needs of the community it seeks to serve. Tackling neighbourhood problems digitally does not require generating reams of new data. The opportunity lies in collaborating to get the most from data that already exists. At its heart is a commitment to the idea that solutions must reflect what the community really needs.
London data goes local
So, what might be achieved? We’ve been exploring the digital neighbourhood approach with the Greater London Authority and the London Data Commission at four sites across the city: Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Brent Cross South, Mayfair and Midtown Business Improvement District. Each site is very different, but they’re all aware that information (data) is often siloed and that they lack a way of integrating data to reveal new insights or plan new responses.
Take local transport provision. The London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) wants to encourage a car-free future, and to be able to empirically demonstrate their success to encourage uptake outside the Park. Any new mobility service must be inclusive and meet real local need – in this case families on lower incomes. The development process obviously requires a deep understanding of the community and its needs. Local data like user responses to mobility trials, local spend patterns and infrastructure usage patterns, when integrated can help the shape the solution, and develop it in future.
Integrating a wide range of data reveals the real neighbourhood need. We’re taking anonymised data on local spending from around the park from payment companies, and blending it with Transport for London travel data to shape potential schemes. It’s a new level of public/private collaboration driven by the specifics of real people’s lives, rather than simply the commercial aspirations of a private enterprise.
This integrate-to-reveal ethos could produce other sorts of local benefits. You wake up. A quick glance at your neighbourhood data service reveals which are currently the quieter routes for your morning run. Or the system provides feedback to your local authority on how e-scooters are impacting your neighbourhood or would alert you that there is a major event going on at your local park and it is likely to interfere with your commute. Such hyper-local data services could also bring the neighbourhood together by providing information on things like new retail openings, noise and anti-social behaviour. Previously anonymous and invisible data has the potential to strengthen communities while maintaining individual privacy.
Learning from each other, rebuilding together
Neighbourhoods often face common issues. The ‘digital neighbourhood’ approach is a highly workable and cost-effective scale to test policies and services, before committing to replicate them across an entire city. As we recover from the biggest economic shock in a century, the ability to test policies and initiatives quickly that encourage a safe return to some of the economic activity that has been infeasible during the Covid-19 pandemic will be essential to helping our neighbourhood high-streets and businesses recover.