Smart technologies can be very seductive. They promise a lot: efficiency, sustainability, innovation. But in times of financial constraint, you need to be sure that they will deliver what you need.
This case study shows how a local authority used smart technology to improve its service delivery – without losing the lessons gained from the original service.
Smart, and 15 years ahead of its time
The smart city concept is new but local authorities have developed their own smart and inclusive data-driven practices for a long time. Cities are already pretty smart, and when introducing “smart” technologies it pays to build on existing practices, networks and communities that developed organically over a long time.
The council of a rapidly-growing town commissioned what they called the Intelligence Observatory to make its own data and that of its partners visible accessible. Data from the Observatory was used to identify and reduce health inequalities and social exclusion. When the observatory started operations it became clear that delivery of the initial vision would require the establishment of a team of experts, to work and collaborate with partners. The council created an intelligence team. This was to provide a human face for the data infrastructures and to provide a full range of support and training to users of the site and partner organisations.
While the story above may sound like something out of a smart city brochure, the project in question was initiated in 2003 and operated for fifteen years. The story is not unique, either. Local authorities have known for a long time that good data leads to good decisions and have incorporated data infrastructures into practices that work for them.
What happens is that when people start to look at data, it brings multiagency working together. It brings about holistic thinking and holistic working…. But the other thing is, you make data available to people and you give it to them in an understandable form. I think that's where it's really fantastic; it's really empowering.
Not just a database, but a network of users
The Intelligence Observatory also contacted potential partners to establish ways in which collaboration and information sharing would benefit them. Collaborations evolved over time. By 2017 the Observatory had hundreds of registered users and was populated with data provided by the council itself and by a variety of agencies including the English Partnerships, NHS, ONS, Regional and National Government, local partnerships and emergency services.
The Observatory became an important resource for internal use of the council, for healthcare providers and for third sector organizations that used the intelligence to concentrate their efforts in the areas that had a greater need. Civic groups also relied on evidence from the observatory to provide justification of need when requesting resources, lobbying for change, or responding to consultations related to their areas of expertise.
The Committee was concerned at the risk to the Council, both to its reputation and financially, which could arise from poor decision making due to Service Groups no longer being able to access the data interpretation and analysis skills currently provided by the Intelligence Observatory…
…The Council, in association with its partners, developed the Smart Data Hub which would continue to supply, via its website, the statistical data produced by the Research Team. Staff around the Council have the necessary skills to produce and analyse such data and that they should be encouraged to expand and share these capabilities.
Now, let’s make it officially smart
After running for 15 years, the Observatory was closed in 2017. Economic austerity made spending cuts necessary and the Observatory was expensive. However, the council found a smart way to build on its legacy. A public-private coalition was in the process of developing a strong and largely privately-funded smart city ecosystem, so data infrastructures that could provide the same functionality of the observatory were readily available. Data from the observatory was transferred to a smart data hub at no cost to the council.
Smart: not a silver bullet, but still pretty good!
If the city council had not remained engaged through the process, the culture of inclusive, data-driven collaboration that had been developed over fifteen years could have been lost as a result of the smart migration from the old-fashioned observatory into the smart data hub. Although all the original data was still available, the move from the public ownershipto an entrepreneurial smart city hub put the contacts and communities that had been developed by the council’s intelligence team at risk. The new data hub had been developed with knowledge-economy businesses and start- ups in mind. The engineers in charge did not have the training or institutional culture required to communicate with local government officers and community groups.
Fortunately, the council was aware of the risk and worked with the smart city team. The smart city developers were encouraged to understand the council’s ways of working and got in touch with other users of the observatory so they could develop interfaces and practices suited to their needs. As such, the new smart infrastructures were not just a place to archive old data, but benefited from fifteen years of accumulated experience from the council’s intelligence officers and their formal and informal networks.