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18.01.16

City-region mayors must ‘set up data offices to build smarter cities’

Elected city-region mayors should set up data offices with small expert teams responsible for using public and privately held data to create “smarter and more productive” cities, a think tank has said.

Policy Exchange argued that most cities hold huge quantities of data that, if used effectively, could improve public services, optimise transport routes, support SMEs and even prevent cycling accidents.

Using these powers, mayors should collate data available – ranging from councils, emergency services and voluntary organisations down to mobile phone networks and payment systems – to unlock valuable information.

This could arguably “break down the silos” between local authorities and public sector bodies, the think tank said, when it comes to using cost-effective information that could improve the standards of living.

Report author Eddie Copeland argued that data will be absolutely fundamental to the success of devolution and smarter cities – but most regions currently lack the ability to “join up, analyse and act upon the vast quantities of data they already have”.

“By establishing an Office of Data Analytics, cities will also improve the quality and reliability of their open data,” he said.

“Devolution provides city mayors with a great opportunity to break down the data silos that exist between different local authorities and public sector bodies.  With 80% of Brits residing in urban areas and the population of our cities ever increasing, it is vital that our cities become smarter to cope with growing pressures on public services, transport and housing.”

An example of this includes analysing anonymised spend and travel information – including from schools, transport links and housing – to better understand where investment and services are most needed in order to save on cash.

Similar opportunities exist right down to preventing cycling accidents, made possible by asking HGVs travelling through city centres to share their GPS data with the city mayor’s Office for Data Analytics.

This data could then be combined with information from cyclists, obtained by their mobile phone signals, to create real-time information of the most common routes shared by large lorries and bikers. City leaders would thus know where to secure evidence-based policy responses by, for example, prioritising spending on new bike lanes or informing cyclists of potential dangers via an app.

Sean Weir, director of telecoms firm Arqiva, argued cities still need help and encouragement to implement and benefit from these smarter technologies, with many initiatives only existing in the form of small pilots or lab-based experiments.

“A nudge to cities through the devolution agenda may be just what is needed to propel smart cities forward,” said Weir.

“Better use of the public and private data that cities and the Internet of Things generates will also help to deliver and explain the benefits of smart cities to citizens and policy makers. This is an area in which our own research has shown a fundamental lack of understanding about the progress and impact being made by the UK’s cities.”

Manchester, the first city to sign a devolution package with the government, has recently beat 34 other cities in the race to win the Internet of Things £10m competition. The government-led technology race will see a range of pioneering smart technology rolled out across the city’s main road to improve local healthcare, transport, energy and culture schemes.

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