“Smart cities are the future!”, they said. But what is this all about? With our current InnoApps Hackathon, we take a look at the opportunities that data and mobile, along with the increasing complexity of the cities we live in, offer. Hurry up & build an app for smart cities! Deadline is on December 7th, hurry up!
It was not that long ago. Last October 23rd,, London’s Future Cities Catapult, a London company, launched Whereabouts website. It is described as “an experiment in how open data can be used to understand and improve future cities” and it looks and works as an interactive map in which one is able to find how London is divided, lifestyle wise, among its different areas and boroughs.
So we looked at the heart of tech, the area of Shoreditch, just for the experiment of it. Turns out that Shoreditch residents are, as the website shows, “a young population who tend to both live and work in Central London. Least likely to own a car, more likely to work in technical occupations such as design and engineering and live in rented accomodation”. In just a couple of clicks we have been able to understand and picture, in nice vizualization, the demographics of a concrete area. A company designed the website, added a design layer and made the whole process a pleasant experience.
How did they know that Shoreditch inhabitants look-exactly-like-this? The answer is data, and that’s what smart cities are – or should be – about right now.
“Reimagining neighbourhoods in this way could help local authorities to commission shared services more effectively. It could help a transport provider to tailor a service more efficiently, make behaviour change campaigns scalable to new areas of a city or reduce start-up costs for innovative new businesses, to name just a few applications”, describes the website. The data is possible thanks to the public sector, that collects, organizes, opens and makes it accessible through London Datastore. And Wherabouts comes with an insight. “Ninety per cent of all data ever created in human history was created in the last 2 years. We’re data rich but insight poor”.
In their everyday processes, Governments and local agencies store tons and tons of data. They are slowly understanding that instead of keeping it for themselves, such data can be useful if it is open to everyone. Some people understand it as fuel, as a powerful resource to design solutions using it.
You can either do a map that tells, in a couple of clicks and a nice visualization, how the inhabitants of an area live, or illustrations to show how a fan of Taylor Swift would look like. That’s what another open-data service, YouGovProfiles, does. “It makes sense that cities release reams of data for developers to fiddle with”, says The Economist article about data driven cities. “The city does not know what to do with 60-70% of the data it collects
Data is there and it is public (and free). It is up to individuals and companies to come up with ideas and give it a value. To turn that richness with lack of insight into something useful.
While the UK is the best example – the country pionners open data movement in the world: they launched their data portal, data.gov.uk, in 2009 and have the leading institution to promote open data, The Open Data Institute by web inventor’s Tim Berners Lee – european administrations do know the amount of opportunities that opening up their data has and are slowly working on it. For instance, the EU has just commited €14.4m towards open data with projects and institutions lead by the Open Data Institute (ODI).
And now that the data is getting there, what can you do with it?
- Identify a problem. Ever run around looking for a public toilet? For a pharmacy? Ever waited forever for a bus under the rain, without knowing when it’s coming, or missed it? What if your phone tells you? If a little and well designed application stores the knowledge in your pocket? Citizens have little everyday problems that data and mobile can help with. Look around and check them.
- Look if there is dataset available. There is a Great British Public Toilet Map and its information is freely available. There is an open dataset of the UK pharmacies. There is information of your nearest tube, bus stop and train. Also of its departures. I want to open my phone and see it. So look up for the dataset you have identified as an opportunity to build something out of. Most of the Governments have datasets portals in which you can start your journey. Sometimes the information is not easily found there – it takes time to build a dataset library and not all of them already have it – so just Google it. It might be somewhere in the web.
- Is it not? Ask for it. Data portals have a section for enquiries.
- Analyze it and improve it. If the public toilet map lacks half of the toilets, it won’t be as useful. Once you have the dataset, analyze if it is valuable. But even if it’s not, here comes your part. Why not building mobile tools so citizens can improve data? Extend what Foursquare did for places to other needs that cities have and give people tools to crowdsource the information.
- Think of people: from raw data to a user-centered approach. While the Public Toilet Map is a valuable and free resource, it is a website view and lacks some interface friendly redesign. Data is fuel. Now your work as an application is to make it user-centered, so that information reaches people.
What makes an app great? One functionality. If you are going to solve the problem of finding a toilet around you, focus on it. Build features around it. But remember your goal is to solve this particular problem. Do not try to “save the world” (or save your city) from day one: an app should start as simple as possible. That’s what will make, the app, the users and the city, smart.