How data can save our cities

There is more we can do to avoid a re­peat of tragic re­cent events

Campaign UK - - PROMOTION - TRACEY FOL­LOWS Chief strat­egy and in­no­va­tion of­fi­cer, The Fu­ture Lab­o­ra­tory @tracey­fu­tures

The past cou­ple of years have seen a resur­gent in­ter­est in the health, pro­duc­tiv­ity and mo­bil­ity of our cities. To­day, about half of the world’s pop­u­la­tion live in cities and that is due to rise to two-thirds by 2050. It doesn’t give us much time to get our shit to­gether.

Cities are still strug­gling with poverty, with pub­lic ser­vices; and, in the past few weeks, we have seen ter­ror­ism on the streets of some of our big­gest cities as well as a na­tional emer­gency in hous­ing and health and safety. At the same time, pub­lic-pol­icy or­gan­i­sa­tions, think-tanks and city coun­cils are stag­ing con­fer­ences and un­der­tak­ing re­search into how to cre­ate more “in­clu­sive growth” across cities in the UK. Every­one knows there’s a prob­lem but few seem to have the so­lu­tion.

It is hard to rec­on­cile. Cities are the en­gines of eco­nomic growth, the mod­ern in­no­va­tion hubs – and it seems odd that, with all of the tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vance­ment avail­able in the in­for­ma­tion age, we should have chaos and con­fu­sion about such ba­sic civic mat­ters. The­o­ries of in­clu­sive growth sug­gest that the liv­ing stan­dards of all cit­i­zens mat­ter and that cities should be able to pro­vide for all.

At a re­cent RSA event on “net­worked cities”, some­one re­marked that we tend to look down on cities. We do: we tend to use maps and aerial pho­to­graphs and blue­prints that look down on to a place. Even the most re­cent ex­per­i­ments in this field rely on a global data­base of built-up ar­eas based on syn­thetic aper­ture radar

im­ages from an Earth-or­bit­ing mis­sion called TAN­DEM-X. Ac­cord­ing to the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum, this con­sists of a pair of space­craft that have been or­bit­ing Earth closely since 2007.

That we look down on cities is true lit­er­ally but it also of­fers an anal­ogy. Gov­ern­ment tends to look down on cities. Gov­ern­ment pol­icy is top-down and ap­plied broadly across ar­eas of­ten with­out too much at­ten­tion to what makes those places dif­fer­ent from one an­other: the lo­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics; the lo­cal skills; the lo­cal con­nec­tions. Our per­spec­tive on cities is al­ways to look down on them; in fact, that is our only per­spec­tive.

But tech­nol­ogy should be al­low­ing us to take dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives. Through new data streams, we should be able to look up at cities and look around them and look into the con­nec­tions be­tween them – tech­nol­ogy should be able to of­fer a mul­ti­tude of per­spec­tives on the city be­yond that of the ivory tower.

There are lots of is­sues that will come out dur­ing the in­quiry into the Gren­fell Tower tragedy and no doubt it will call those re­spon­si­ble to ac­count. But, in one sense, this was a fail­ure of tech­nol­ogy, or cer­tainly in the way tech­nol­ogy is ap­plied – and I’m not talk­ing about the cladding. I mean, where is the data cap­ture of res­i­dents’ on­go­ing con­cerns? Where is the peer-to-peer rec­om­men­da­tions about what was go­ing on with tower blocks through­out the land? We are al­ways hear­ing about how tech­nol­ogy makes things bet­ter and cheaper. And, lastly but most im­por­tantly, why wasn’t there any mood data?

Re­mem­ber the web­site We Feel Fine? It cap­tured the feel­ings and emo­tions of peo­ple who in­putted their data and you could slice and dice it to see how peo­ple in a par­tic­u­lar lo­ca­tion were feel­ing at any one time. Any­one could an­a­lyse what the weather was like in any given place and cross-match it with the feel­ings of the pop­u­la­tion there. You could look at key de­mo­graph­ics and com­pare who felt fine and who was sad or an­gry. That was about ten years ago. Why hasn’t this been scaled? Why isn’t this a na­tional open-data plat­form? Why don’t we care about how we feel about the place we live – about how we all feel about it? Be­fore it’s too late? I al­ways say that big data can’t be big data if it doesn’t in­clude emo­tional data. Maybe if data like this was be­ing cap­tured by us, an­a­lysed and used in these kind of ways, we would have a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of when so­ci­etal is­sues are brew­ing and the emo­tional con­cerns that are build­ing in densely pop­u­lated places like our cities.

Maybe the tem­per­a­ture of the place is worth know­ing more than the weather. Maybe that would be a place to start in build­ing in­clu­sive­ness into our cities so that it isn’t coun­cils that are lis­tened to – it’s the feel­ings and emo­tions of cit­i­zens, the peo­ple on the street, the peo­ple nor­mally looked down upon.

“Big data can’t be big data if it doesn’t in­clude emo­tional data. Maybe if data like this was be­ing cap­tured by us, we would have a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of when so­ci­etal is­sues are brew­ing”

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