How data can save our cities
A view from Tracey Follows

How data can save our cities

There is more we can do to avoid a repeat of tragic recent events.

The past couple of years have seen a resurgent interest in the health, productivity and mobility of our cities. Today, about half of the world’s population live in cities and that is due to rise to two-thirds by 2050. It doesn’t give us much time to get our shit together. 

Cities are still struggling with poverty, with public services; and, in the past few weeks, we have seen terrorism on the streets of some of our biggest cities as well as a national emergency in housing and health and safety. At the same time, public-policy organisations, think-tanks and city councils are staging conferences and undertaking research into how to create more "inclusive growth" across cities in the UK. Everyone knows there’s a problem but few seem to have the solution.  

There are lots of issues that will come out during the inquiry into the Grenfell Tower tragedy and no doubt it will call those responsible to account

It is hard to reconcile. Cities are the engines of economic growth, the modern innovation hubs – and it seems odd that, with all of the technological advancement available in the information age, we should have chaos and confusion about such basic civic matters. Theories of inclusive growth suggest that the living standards of all citizens matter and that cities should be able to provide for all. 

At a recent RSA event on "networked cities", someone remarked that we tend to look down on cities. We do: we tend to use maps and aerial photographs and blueprints that look down on to a place. Even the most recent experiments in this field rely on a global database of built-up areas based on synthetic aperture radar images from  an Earth-orbiting mission called TanDEM-X. According to the World Economic Forum, this consists of a pair of spacecraft that have been orbiting Earth closely since 2007. 

That we look down on cities is true literally but it also offers an analogy. Government tends to look down on cities. Government policy is top-down and applied broadly across areas often without too much attention to what makes those places different from one another: the local characteristics; the local skills; the local connections. Our perspective on cities is always to look down on them; in fact, that is our only perspective. 

But technology should be allowing us to take different perspectives. Through new data streams, we should be able to look up at cities and look around them and look into the connections between them – technology should be able to offer a multitude of perspectives on the city beyond that of the ivory tower. 

I always say that big data can’t be big data if it doesn’t include emotional data

There are lots of issues that will come out during the inquiry into the Grenfell Tower tragedy and no doubt it will call those responsible to account. But, in one sense, this was a failure of technology, or certainly in the way technology is applied – and I’m not talking about the cladding. I mean, where is the data capture of residents’ ongoing concerns? Where is the peer-to-peer recommendations about what was going on with tower blocks throughout the land? We are always hearing about how technology makes things better and cheaper. And, lastly but most importantly, why wasn’t there any mood data? 

Remember the website We Feel Fine? It captured the feelings and emotions of people who inputted their data and you could slice and dice it to see how people in a particular location were feeling at any one time. Anyone could analyse what the weather was like in any given place and cross-match it with the feelings of the population there. You could look at key demographics and compare who felt fine and who was sad or angry. That was about ten years ago. Why hasn’t this been scaled? Why isn’t this a national open-data platform? Why don’t we care about how we feel about the place we live – about how we all feel about it? Before it’s too late? 

I always say that big data can’t be big data if it doesn’t include emotional data. Maybe if data like this was being captured by us, analysed and used in these kind of ways, we would have a better understanding of when societal issues are brewing and the emotional concerns that are building in densely populated places like our cities. Maybe the temperature of the place is worth knowing more than the weather. Maybe that would be a place to start in building inclusiveness into our cities so that it isn’t councils that are listened to – it’s the feelings and emotions of citizens, the people on the street, the people normally looked down upon.

Tracey Follows is chief strategy and innovation officer, The Future Laboratory
@traceyfutures