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Socitm: CIOs "vital" to realising 'smart place' potential

Neil Merrett Published 16 May 2014

ICT heads key to developing 'smart places', while innovation body cites public trust as data sharing hurdle


ICT heads will be vital to implementing and explaining how technical infrastructure can be combined with big data to address the specific needs of local communities and reap the potential benefits of 'smart places', according to a new Socitm briefing .

Smart places, a broad concept of combining technology and data to try and implement more cost efficient, sustainable practices in areas like transport, health and the environment, is being put forward by the public sector managers group as a potentially significant innovation allowing governments and organisations to do more for less.

However, to successfully embrace the potential innovations on offer and allow for 'bottom-up' public innovation, the briefing urges CIOs and local government ICT figures to understand the available resources, economic strengths and needs of their respective communities before integrating technical architecture.

"Developing a vision is critical. Any government that is not thinking about renewal in cyberspace in order to compete globally risks prejudicing the well-being and life chances of its citizens," Socitm says, in its briefing to outline how to roll out smart place strategies nationally. "Data needs to be released to enable new service developments. And citizens need to be helped to make informed decisions."

The briefing was issued on the back of the British Standards Institute (BSI) announcing the publication of its own guidance on defining and evaluating smart places.

In playing up the potential benefits for a user of combining big data with public infrastructure, Socitm cites public transport as an area that is already working to take up smart initiatives, as seen in efforts to make detailed information available and accessible to the public. This data can then be combined with augmented reality apps on smartphones to display a street scene and then attach real time data on stations and traffic that limit cost pressures on authorities.

While the notion of a smart place may be gaining capital among public service bodies, Peter Madden, chief executive of the Future Cities Catapult innovation group, argues the term must now be used to show real return on investment if it is to become more than a buzzword.

Rather than having the tech industry, corporations and government trying push the smart place concept, Madden believes "mutual" advocates need to be found to push suites of technology rather than a particular product and educate the public on how they can benefit from holistic sharing of data.

Considering the growing abundance of smart phones and the fact that new cars often contain and create more data about a journey than the roads, tunnels and general infrastructure that they travel on, Madden believes smart thinking' needs to show how value can be taken out of huge amounts of data.

"One of my favourite facts at present is that 90% of all human data ever recorded has been created in the last two years," he says."We have to find ways to use big data in order to better understand how it affects our lives, but that is an opportunity. City leaders are receiving less and less money, but coming under increasing demand from citizens for services. This is something they have to do."

Yet this holistic approach of sharing big data from the public with various services and departments and vice versa is not without its complexities.

According to Madden, cities are a "complex organism" in that they are made up of various silos where you may solve one issue - such as crime - then make life difficult for people in another areas of their lives, like through increased security screening or checks.

It is in trying to address these sometimes conflicting interests where Future Cities Catapult believes big data can help provide more versatile solutions to interconnected challenges.

Madden says that one barrier holding back a wider understanding of 'smart' thinking within the public sector was not just about skills in using apps and other technology, but also the issue of trust about sharing "big data", particularly with providing personal information to corporations.

"When we talk of capacity building, if the only people telling the public about 'smart cities' are big technology companies, not everyone will trust these programmes," he adds.

Madden points to UK universities as an example of organisations becoming much more involved in working with cities, the public and municipal authorities to independently provide skills and share knowledge on 'smart' thinking.

However, he says that considering potential public concerns about data security, the public sector has in the past self-imposed limitations on the potential to develop 'smart places'.

As part of the challenge to build 'smart' cities or communities around the UK, another significant challenge identified by Madden as needing to be addressed is infrastructure and expanding public sector understanding of the benefits of using big data.

"[Smart place] is a little bit of a buzzword at present, our challenge now is to turn to real projects and show how change is happening. When [the public] sees a return on investment, their understanding will increase. However, we must move beyond plans and talk into practice," he adds.

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