Leveraging data to change cities as we know them - the social impact

20 September 2016

By Checca Aird

Historically the public sector has been light years behind the private sector when it comes to utilising technology in their operations, and even later to the party when recognising the value of the data they hold. However, recent developments encouraging government transparency and efficiency have forced officials to rethink the issue.

Big Data is one of the Government’s Eight Great Technologies to support UK science strengths and business capabilities, but research such as PwC’s Global Data & Analytics Survey, shows that the volume, veracity and speed of public data need to be improved for real insights to be drawn. The ‘Information Economy Strategy’ reports on the increase in data being collected and the importance of computing power, in order to reap its potential economic value.

The use of big data analytics could save the public sector between £16bn and £33bn a year – equivalent to between 2.5 per cent and 4.5 per cent of the Government's total budget of about £700bn according to a report by think-tank - the Policy Exchange.

The scale and range of Government data is overwhelming. HM Revenues and Customs interacts with over 40 million customers, about 12 million more than the Big Four high street banks combined. Departments, agencies, and local authorities procure over £243 billion worth of goods and services and according to the Labour Market survey from the Office of National Statistics, about six million people work in the public sector, each of whom the Government store data on.

According to Tom Heath, Head of Research at the Open Data InstituteData can enable government to do existing things more cheaply, do existing things better and do new things we don’t currently do.”

Smart Cities

One of the most exciting developments in IOT and big data analytics is the potential for the creation of Smart Cities.

According to Wikipedia a Smart City is an urban development vision to integrate multiple Information and Communication Technology (ICT) solutions in a secure fashion to manage a city's assets – in other words connecting the movements of a city with its inhabitants.

As the use of social and mobile technologies increases and physical objects are embedded with sensors, cognitive systems will be able to find patterns in the vast quantities of data produced. They can then reason through patterns that emerge and learn from their interactions with us to refine their suggestions.

By 2019, the number of smart phone users in the world is expected to surpass 2.5 billion – this will allow people to have a digital key to the city right at their fingertips. Information about what is happening in the city, what experiences are relevant to them and how to get there will be delivered straight to their phone. Mobile apps will become the new standard for tracking pot holes, broken street lights and inaccessible sidewalks.

Public officials will also be able to have a direct communication channel to every citizen, allowing city leaders to develop bespoke plans for communities and regions, addressing each person’s needs in a tailored way.

By allowing cities and their leaders to leverage the knowledge in the data being produced around them, cities can become more flexible, faster to react, less encumbered by bureaucracy and more open to sharing data and insight. Perhaps even allowing citizens to have direct input into their community’s and city’s plans and receive feedback from city leaders.

The iUrban case study, carried out by PwC, showed that opening up Government data can massively contribute to a city’s competiveness in many ways - such as by increasing democratic participation, accountability and transparency, spurring innovation, and even improving a city’s service provision.

Some of the trail blazers in the journey to smart interconnected cities are IBM, Microsoft and Google.

Google’s Alphabet has a subsidiary that has started a “Sidewalk project” which, if approved, will lobby bids from states or cities in need of an upgrade.

It’s well known that Alphabet already has high-tech divisions working on developments that would be well-matched with a smart city; the self-driving car, Project WingMakani, and Project Insight, just to name a few - making this project an excellent commercial offering for Google.

IBM Researchers in Brazil are working on a crowdsourcing tool, Rota Acessivel that allows users to report accessibility problems to help people with disabilities better navigate challenges in urban streets and in Uganda, UNICEF is collaborating with IBM on a social engagement tool that lets Ugandan youths communicate with their government and community leaders on issues affecting their lives. Using IBM text analytics and machine learning, leaders are able to identify trending concerns or urgent matters and immediately take action where needed. These are the kind of analytical programmes that could be a game changer for developing countries that are regularly subject to political and economic turmoil.


Microsoft CityNext aims to connect functions like energy, water, infrastructure, transportation, public safety, tourism, recreation, education, health and social services, and government administrations.

Several cities are already on their way to modernization, including Auckland, New Zealand; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Hainan Province and Zhengzhou in China; Hamburg, Germany; Moscow, Russia; and Philadelphia.

As with any technological advances, there are risks and limitations. Much like Tesla founder Elon Musk, no one wants "The Terminator" to become a reality.

The iUrban study suggests that implementing open data initiatives in the public sector is not without its challenges and requires a number of key enablers: distributed leadership, prioritisation, choosing the right scale while involving private companies, grassroots movements and agile brokers within the municipal administration.

Some of the main concerns revolve around privacy and data protection. The speed of advancements in technology is surpassing the legal system. While massive improvements could be made, such as edge analytics for healthcare, digital government platforms and citizen e-ID’s, there is debate as to how to implement these technologies ethically.


So what is stopping Government bodies from improving their constituent’s day-to-day lives on a massive scale? Is it a matter of trust? Are you comfortable with the level of data sharing and connectivity that would be required? While public bodies would need funding and the technological know-how to implement smart tech, without our trust and a willingness to share our data it won’t be possible to realise the benefits.

Join the debate at www.psrc.pwc.com, or leave your comments below.


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