Coronavirus, cities and data

This seems a good moment to pause and consider how far we have come in using data to deliver city services, what is needed right now, and what new demands might emerge in the future.
The smart city — more a journey than a destination

Each citizen has a hierarchy of needs, individual in the detail but mostly featuring homes, jobs, healthcare, education, social opportunities, places to exercise, and travel between all of those. City leaders and managers try to achieve pragmatic, sustainable, and defensible balances between citizens’ priorities. And so we arrive at the Smart City Movement.

The smart city movement rests on the premise that more and better data will help manage that continual dynamic balancing act. By and large that has been justified. Cities have proved more complex than some technology vendors suggested a decade ago, but city data applications have come of age, and some of them work very well.

Local public services in the UK and elsewhere had come a long way digitally, in a short time, with limited assistance and with very constrained resources. There have been substantial gains from data-driven improvements to transport systems, and even complex challenges like air quality are being addressed with flexible mechanisms using live data. At the Connected Places Catapult we have done a lot of work on how the planning system could be improved through better use of data, and there have been promising signs that this will happen.

Through our Data Science Fellowships we place data scientist in local public sector organisations, and we have seen much greater demand for data science skills than we saw even three years ago. Recently, we have supported four Data Science Fellows to address hard problems for Local Authorities, including using exploratory and predictive methods to understand factors affecting road maintenance, mapping risk of all-age social isolation, and understanding factors affecting rental arrears and family income. We have altered the course of the London Development Database to track household-level information about new builds, so that attempts to increase housing delivery to address the housing crisis can be monitored and drive policy and funding. We are using mobile network data to improve models built to understand the demand for different transport modes.

From time to time there has — rightly — been scepticism about smart cities. People sensed that some activity was led by technology, rather than by local need. Others feared that data-driven city government could be inhumane, over-centralised, or unaccountable, and those are real and serious risks. I recommend Ben Green’s 2019 book The Smart Enough City, which works through examples of how cities have made their way, through trial and error, towards uses of data and technology that are transparent and appropriate to local needs.

At the same time, data-driven consumer applications delivered by smartphones have also made a big impact on citizens’ daily lives. We have probably only seen the early stages of how that will play out at a city level.

Uber is the leading example of a digital platform affecting how cities work. City governments are still working out how to respond and live comfortably with Uber and similar services around the world, and now with a growing range of other platform-based transport providers, including the scooter companies.

It’s telling that cities now see Uber’s data as a key part of the negotiation. They recognise the value that can be derived for citizens and cities in using that data in the public interest. We may see more efforts by city leaders to make use of the “shadow smart city” which is the data about our behaviour and our movements in places, held by digital platforms.

In the last year we also saw the “techlash”, a reaction against the surveillance capitalism model of Google and the other digital giants. Many city governments are keenly aware that citizens are waking up to data privacy, and want to ensure they are on the side of the citizen.

Pandemic 2020 — data-driven city services now

All of that seems an age ago, though it’s only weeks.

Right now, cities need data for crisis management, to deliver services under new constraints. Health services need faster capture and integration of data, some from new sources, to track and predict infection, and to find and reach the most vulnerable. Public authorities need to monitor travel and compliance with restrictions. They need to communicate with citizens and businesses for new purposes, to provide reassurance and useful information, and to explain and administer new rules.

The need to track infections also creates new conditions in relation to privacy. The UK’s Information Commissioner moved fast to issue guidance about balancing data privacy with public health. While most of us would sacrifice some privacy temporarily for the collective good, in practice there are complicated questions about what approach is most effective in the long term and manages risks like the harm that could come from “outing” infected individuals or creating perverse incentives to avoid tracking.

There are also gaps in the data. Fewer older or poorer people have smartphones, so some people at risk will be missing in datasets from smartphones. Good decisions will need to take into account levels of accuracy and limitations of tracking applications. Medical ethics and data ethics are now part of the wider daily business of the city. Authorities will need to give citizens confidence that data gathered for public health is not repurposed, for example for immigration enforcement, or handed to private companies.

There are a lot of challenges to meet here, but some of the developments of recent years — for instance in data-driven monitoring of transport patterns — have already made some of this work easier. And I expect we are all glad that contactless payment — developed for transport services — became so widespread just in time for this.

In local government, the pandemic has greatly accelerated the digital transformation that has been under way for a decade. In a very short time, councils have shifted to remote meetings, digital service delivery, more sharing of data, and more process automation. Conversely, the gaps where data are urgently needed for situational awareness, but not available, are being exposed.

Cities can learn from each other in real time. The Global Resilient Cities Network and the World Bank are already running online discussions with city resilience leaders from around the world to share their approaches to managing through the pandemic.

Recovery: beyond the smart city

Everyone — citizens, city authorities, and governments — wants to know what approaches to managing these new challenges are proving most effective. For instance, reports suggest that Taiwan’s (to date) very effective approach to tracking has been built on digital services that were developed with the active participation of citizens. There is an urgent need for more detailed review of the applications in play, to transfer the lessons and to understand and manage the risks. As we move into the new environment of partial and flexible restrictions, after lockdown, very quickly we’ll need to develop new and pragmatic social practices based on continual data analysis. It may not be easy in the short term to tell “what works”.

It’s too early to say what high level social and economic changes to cities might result, but it is possible to consider what new demands will arise around data. Indeed, interpreting local data will be central to how we think about recovery in specific places.

There is likely to be yet more pressure for cities to integrate data sources better for faster and more effective local and regional decision-making.

Managing the end of lockdown is going to present new questions. It’s certain that data about people’s movements will be used in ways it has not been before. We will see more forms of surveillance collecting more data about people, more arguments about privacy, and an increasing need for clearer shared principles about use of location-based data.

Data-driven modelling already has a much bigger public profile than it had some weeks ago. It may not be a bad thing that media coverage has also shown how complex, difficult and contested modelling of public health can be, in terms of managing future expectations. But in any case, the gaps in knowledge revealed during the pandemic will surely inspire more organisations to invest in modelling scenarios, to plan for later developments and for business continuity.

The global digital companies may become even more powerful by adding to their data-holdings through activity during this period. Google and Apple are involved in US Government measures, and all the digital majors are reported to be expanding their interests in healthcare. They could even emerge from the pandemic with far more data about individuals, and with the techlash forgotten because of their contribution to handling the emergency.

The public sector too is likely to have even more data about citizens. History shows that when Governments gain new sources of information and new powers in an emergency, they can be reluctant to let those go. There will be a lot of attention to purpose limitation (only using data for the critical purpose for which it was collected), sunset clauses and transparency.

I hope we’ll see more investment in data in the local public sector, with the recognition that more, better and faster data is now essential to delivering under stress. We should see more opportunities for applications that deliver collective value and while protecting individual privacy, and more use of data trusts and data collaboratives using data securely in the public interest.

Depending on how long social distancing lasts, and whether it is likely to recur, we may see a lot more use of automated services like those now delivering food to people in Milton Keynes. Something that might have looked like a gimmick a year ago, could be an everyday sight around the UK within months.

In the longer term, we will see more demand for measures for economic recovery to be based on local data. In March, Connected Places Catapult published a report commissioned from Centre for Cities on how to prioritise investments in research and development in UK places. Recovery from the economic shock of the pandemic is only going increase the need for data-driven investment decisions. It will also present specific challenges in the UK, where there is relatively limited experience of localised economic planning.

And there will continue to be a pressing need to use data to find and help the most vulnerable, economically and otherwise.

After a protracted adolescence, digital local services are having to grow up fast. But that could mean that collectively we come to value local services more, and invest in using the best tools available to deliver them.

Navigate the new normal with us

This article is part of the Post-Pandemic Places Innovation Brief – a collection of insights and analysis focused on innovation opportunities in the post-Covid era. If you are part of a business of any size, a research institution or government organisation interested in exploring post-pandemic innovation opportunities in built environment, mobility, transport, critical infrastructure or local planning, get in touch with us at to take the conversation forward.