How can university professional services staff help to develop ‘Smart Cities’?

The DMU Local site recently asked: “What does a ‘Smart City’ mean to you?” The deadline for the prize for best answer has passed, but the question remains. The university and the City Council are working to put together a strategy for making Leicester a Smart City, hoping that better use of technology would improve things for businesses and communities and make a difference in sectors like healthcare and transport.

Universities are also challenged in the post-Brexit political environment to re-assert their relevance to the communities whose taxes pay for their continued existence. Finding ways of taking the university’s expertise out of its ‘Ivory Towers’ and into those communities is likely to prove important.

My own answer to the question about what Smart Cities mean would have focussed on Open Data. I would have assumed that planners have long used data to make decisions. The flow of traffic is governed by factors like distance between traffic lights, average speed of vehicles and the timing of stop signs. A smart city would open its processes in two ways:

  1. Make the data available for anyone curious to use.
  2. Be open to learning from citizen explorations into this data

People might start with a frustration: “Why can’t I get out of my industrial estate in the evening rush hour?” and use the data and modelling systems to explore the effect of more frequent or longer gaps between the traffic light changes.

And this is not just for traffic issues. A Smart City would also be involving people in learning and improving healthcare, public safety, education and training and other areas.

What do we need? Open Data and Equipped People

Key to this vision would be curating a collection of data sets relevant to how a city operates and developing the skills within the population be able to work with the data and learn from it.

How can professional services help?

Hosting hackathons

The university could host events where citizens from outside the university with an interest in a sector, like healthcare could meet up with staff from inside the university to explore the data and learn from each other about the skills required to analyse and make recommendations.

Curate collections

Making the data ‘Open’ involves more than just sticking files up ‘on the cloud’. The ingest processes and development of associated metadata are areas where information professionals, like librarians, already have experience to contribute. Data about any one city cannot be understood in isolation from other nodes. Sourcing data from outside to enable comparisons between Leicester and Oslo, for example, requires knowledge of the Open Data landscape.

Share skills

Professional services staff across the range of directorates are involved in analysing data and could share those skills with each other and the city. There is a movement of ‘Data Carpentry’ events which would provide a format for such learning encounters.

Data collection

The university could install air pollution monitors along the line of the Oxford Road buildings and the river to compare air quality in different environments around the campus.

App development

Apps could be designed built on Open Data and shared with the community to enable citizens to benefit from professional services expertise. For example a local congestion app could help people decide on the best routes home

About Philip Adams

Senior Assistant Librarian at De Montfort University. I am interested in digital preservation and the use of data to measure a library's impact. All comments own.
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