Interviews

06.08.18

Helping a city understand itself

Source: PSE Aug/Sept 2018

SPONSORED INTERVIEW

The urban landscape is changing. How can local authorities keep up with citizen behaviour? Stephen Leece, managing director at Citi Logik, tells PSE’s Luana Salles that big data might just be the solution.

The way people are moving is fundamentally changing. The classic view of commuting to work – living in one place, working in another, and repeating that routine five days a week – is no longer a truism, with people now working from different locations and spending their time fundamentally differently to the way they did even just five years ago.

As a result, the urban environment is no longer what we imagined it to be: the movement patterns of the citizens of today are practically unrecognisable. Understanding what their behaviour looks like and the dynamics of how a city lives and moves is a wholly new challenge.

Designing an effective connectivity strategy that accurately caters to the transport needs of those who move through the city poses one of the greatest challenges. Relying on existing data – often collected manually through roadside surveys – to make decisions about roadworks, highway planning, traffic flows and even cycle lanes will prove to be costly and statistically unreliable.

So how can this process be simplified? Well, they say that in the digital age, big data is the new electricity that powers a city.

Anonymised data

Citi Logik is working alongside Vodafone to help local authorities to better understand citizens’ journeys and build overall patterns of movement. It’s no longer about individuals answering questions at the side of the road to a council representative armed with clipboards; it’s about harnessing the existing 3/4G network to understand demand patterns and multimodal movement.

The idea has been seven years in the making. Speaking to PSE, Stephen Leece, managing director at Citi Logik, explained that the two organisations first went to the Information Commissioner’s Office – even before GDPR was on the horizon – to understand the compliancy requirements around anonymisation. They have spent the last three years working with large engineering consultancies to reach a census-level quality standard that ensures any future work abides by a very high benchmark.

“If you’re going to do something better, faster and cheaper, you have to start with the better,” said Leece. “The ‘better’ is quality, and statistically significant data volumes. The ‘faster’ is that it’s a much more non-intrusive collection of data using existing infrastructure, which is clearly more efficient and better for society – you’re not putting large amounts of sensors on the streets or anything of that nature. The ‘cheaper’ is providing something to a local authority that it would not otherwise have been able to afford.”

Journey time reliability

The Citi Logik boss spoke to me shortly after meeting with a northern city council which has just adopted ‘data as a service,’ where his company and Vodafone have started deploying this technology to help build a comprehensive view of the city. Even though it’s still early days, some interesting insight has already surfaced: for example, the average vehicle travel speeds on major roads are actually slower than cycling speeds. So why not encourage people to cycle down these roads instead of driving?

“The awareness of what’s going on and what the issues are – relating to what is called journey time reliability, or how consistently you can travel from A to B – is critical to changing that,” continued Leece. But most importantly, the process is evidential: with the right information, councils can easily explain and prove to their residents why it is making certain decisions around road usage.

This is especially true in the age of digital consent. “The most contentious example is when a device is placed on a street where there is a wi-fi connection, and they’re picking up signals from people passing by without their agreement,” he said. “These sorts of things are not really appropriate in this world. The whole approach is about doing it in a way that gets the buy-in of not only the local authority itself, but also of the people who vote them into office.”

Beyond just transport

Whilst Vodafone and Citi Logik are interested in working with local authorities on a subscription-based, continual basis, Leece ran through some of achievements of single-use projects they have recently carried out. For a city council in the north west of England, for example, data around car parking – one of the biggest contributors to congestion if not optimised properly – helped it understand where people travelled for work and retail; where they started and ended their journey; and how they changed transport modes along the way.

“That’s really important, because if you want to put in Park & Ride schemes and understand the provision of services into the city, you need to help the city understand itself first,” Leece told me.

Although transport is the chief area to benefit from this work, it’s not the only target. The next major stepping stone, according to Citi Logik, is urban planning – determining what a commercial developer needs to contribute to a local environment, and how it will impact the existing landscape – followed by public inquiries and service provision. “Healthcare provision is the most obvious: if you can understand the journeys of everyone trying to get to a major healthcare facility, such as a hospital, then you can optimise the movements to those places,” argued the managing director.

Pollution monitoring is also a part of health planning. If you can improve the flow of people in and around an urban space, then you can cut down on dangerous pollution levels which currently dictate that city-dwellers will live five years less on average. And if you can better manage the sheer volume of freight vehicles on the road delivering packages to online shoppers, you can ensure convenience and capacity go hand in hand.

Getting involved

The opportunity is there to transform our conception of what makes a city truly ‘smart.’ But can the public sector achieve this without the help of the private sector? 

“If we look at the sharing economy, there are different ways of doing things. The use of the existing infrastructure, which we’re all paying for, is critical. And it’s a critical part of the city: reusing the data from existing infrastructure is really important,” noted Leece.

“Data is an area of expertise, and you need people to focus on it just like with any other core service. Ultimately, councils and regions should be working with people who can add value to their core mission. They should be spending their time on the policymaking, rather than necessarily creating data themselves.”

The two companies are ready to speak to local authorities who are interested in harnessing digitally innovative techniques to shape a better urban realm and to grow the local digital economy. If this sounds like you, make sure to get in touch.

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