How data and smart city infrastructure can support transport planning

Image from Flickr user JustGrimes, licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons License

Image from Flickr user JustGrimes, licensed under Creative Commons

By Morwen Johnson

Efficient transport is vital to the smooth running of businesses and everyday life in a city. The emergence of new technologies is rapidly transforming both traffic management systems and the analysis of travel activity and transport modelling.

At the Open Data Awards last week, the Greater London Authority won the Open Data Publisher Award, with the opening up of Transport for London’s data infrastructure being highlighted as an example of how whole systems thinking can create an ecosystem and value chain supported by data.

Smart transport solutions

Within the UK, initiatives such as the Future Cities Demonstrator (based in Glasgow) and the Catapult Centres, both established by Innovate UK (fomerly the Technology Strategy Board), are exploring innovative ways to use technology and data to make life in cities safer, smarter and more sustainable. The UK Government has also continued its support with its announcement in the March 2015 budget of new funding to support the technology market around the Internet of Things.

Smart solutions involve data gathering, real-time processing, data analytics and visualisation. Using data ultimately aims to support better decision and enable innovation. New technologies and availability of data, and the near-universal uptake of mobile devices, therefore offers an opportunity to innovate in order to make our urban areas more adaptive and resilient.

‘Intelligent mobility’ is a sector of the wider transport industry which is predicted to be worth around £900 billion a year globally by 2025. A recent report suggested however that the UK faces major transport-related data gaps which limit its ability to take advantage of this market. In some cases this relates to datasets which do not yet exist at all in the UK, and in other cases to datasets which exist only in ‘silos’ or which are not yet open or freely available.

Data supports transport planning

Transport for London has allowed their data, which has been collected from Oyster Smart Card use, to be open and available to developers to create a range of Apps which allow the public access to travel information, much of it real-time.

Many councils across the UK are using data to improve journey planning in a similar way. The itravelsmart App from Cheshire West & Chester Council won the Best Smarter Travel App award at this year’s Smarter Travel Awards for a tool that integrates travel information, interactive maps and public transport timetables.

At a city-wide level, using an intelligent transport system can also help improve capacity and manage traffic flows. Cities such as Amsterdam, have been leading the way in using open data to support transport planning – back in 2012 Amsterdam won the World Smart Cities Awards 2012 with its Open Data Program for transport and mobility. Since March 2012, the city’s department for Infrastructure, Traffic and Transportation (DIVV) has made available all its data on traffic and transportation to interested parties. Data about parking (tariffs, availability, time), taxi stands, cyclepaths, and stops for touring cars are public now, as well as real-time information on traffic jams on main roads around the city.

The Urban Big Data Centre was established by the UK Economic and Social Research Council to address social, economic and environmental challenges facing cities. It launched in 2014 and focuses on methods and technologies to manage, link and analyse multi-sectoral urban Big Data, and to demonstrate the use of such information, for example in transport planning.

From smarter data to smarter decisions

To make a city smart and to use smart infrastructure, it’s vital that the transport system functions to the best of its ability. By utilising data from a variety of sources, such as open transport data, sensor data, crowdsourcing and other social media sources, it seems there is potential for a huge improvement in efficiency by increasing integration.

Encouraging modal shift can also have an impact on environmental problems, such as pollution and carbon emissions. Using data, whether it is open data or big data, can help inform evidence-based decision-making in these important policy areas.


We’ve written a briefing on the emerging use of big data and open data in transport planning, including case studies from the literature.

Idox has recently announced its acquisition of Cloud Amber Ltd, a leading supplier of integrated transport solutions to local authorities.

The Idox Knowledge Exchange are also hosting a Big Data Knowledge Transfer Project in collaboration with Salford University.

Smart cities … treading the line between the possible, the probable and the desirable

By Morwen Johnson

Sometimes it feels like every city in the world is now claiming to be ‘smart’. Our research team regularly add new reports on the topic to our database. And with a policy agenda riding on the back of a multi-billion pound global industry, the positivist rhetoric around smart cities can seem overwhelming.

We’ve blogged before about the disconnect between what surveys suggest the public values in terms of quality of life in urban areas, and what smart cities are investing in. And last week I attended a conference in Glasgow ‘Designing smart cities: opportunities and regulatory challenges’ which refreshingly brought together a multi-disciplinary audience to look at smart cities in a more critical light.

The conference was rich and wide-ranging – too broad for me to try and summarise the discussions. Instead here are some reflections on the challenges which need to be explored.

Every smart city is a surveillance city

Look in any smart city prospectus or funding announcement and you’ll find mention of how data will be ‘managed’, ‘captured’, ‘monitored’, ‘shared’, ‘analysed’, ‘aggregated’, ‘interrogated’ etc. And this is inevitably presented as a benign activity happening for the common good, improving efficiency, saving money and making life better.

As David Murakami Wood pointed out at the conference however, this means that every smart city is by necessity a surveillance city – even if policymakers and stakeholders are reluctant to admit this.

Public debate is failing to keep up with the pace of change

Even for someone who takes a keen interest in urbanism and the built environment, any description of smart cities can risk leaving you feeling like a techno-illiterate dinosaur. It’s clear that there is also a huge amount of hype around the construction (or retrofitting) of smart cities – with vested interests keen to promote a positive message.

Do we really understand the possibilities being opened up when we embed technology in our urban infrastructure? And more importantly, what are the ethical questions raised around sharing and exploiting data? The pace of the development and rollout of new technologies within our urban environments seems to be running ahead of the desirable cycle of reflection and critique.

An interesting point was also made about language – and whether experts, technologists and policymakers need to adjust their use of language and jargon, in order for discussion about smart cities to be inclusive. Ubicomp … augmented reality … the Internet of Things … even the Cloud – how can the public give informed consent to participating in the smart city if the language used obscures and obfuscates what is happening with their data?

Where can we have a voice in the data city?

Following on from this point, cities are not ends in themselves – to be successful they must serve the interests and needs of the people who live, work and visit them. An interesting strand of the conference discussion considered what a bottom-up approach to smart cities would look like.

Alison Powell highlighted that there’s been a shift from seeing people as citizens to treating them as ‘citizen consumers’ – I’d add that within the built environment, this goes hand-in-hand with the commercialisation and privatisation of public space – and this has profound implications around questions of inclusion/exclusion. And also where power and decision-making sits – and who is profiting.

Although some general examples of community participation projects were mentioned during the conference, these didn’t seem to address the question of how ‘people’ can engage with smart cities. Not as problems to be managed or controlled – or as passive suppliers of data to sensors – but as creative and active participants.

Conclusion

I left the conference wondering where society is heading and how we, the Knowledge Exchange, can support our members in local government and the third sector to understand the extensive opportunities and implications of smart cities. We see a key part of our mission to be horizon scanning – and our briefings for members focus on drawing together analysis, emerging evidence and case studies.

Not all towns or cities have the resources, investment or desire to lead the way in technological innovation. But the challenge of bridging the gap between professionals and their vision and understanding of smart cities, and people in communities, is a universal one.

As William Gibson observed: “The future is already here … it’s just not very evenly distributed”.


 

The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on smart cities or public participation. To find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Our reading list prepared for last autumn’s Annual UK-Ireland Planning Research Conference looks at some recent literature on smart cities.

The conference Designing smart cities: opportunities and regulatory challenges was held at the University of Strathclyde on 31 March and 1 April 2015, supported by CREATe and Horizon.

The Idox Group is the leading applications provider to UK local government for core functions relating to land, people and property, such as its market leading planning systems. Over 90% of UK local authorities are now customers. Idox provides public sector organisations with tools to manage information and knowledge, documents, content, business processes and workflow as well as connecting directly with the citizen via the web.