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If government wants city devolution to succeed, cities need to use data

Developing smart data-driven cities needs to be a priority if the government's devolution policy is to succeed

If the government wants city devolution to succeed, cities need to be able to use data. City devolution is at the very heart of the government’s policy programme for this parliament.

The intention is that by devolving powers from Whitehall, a new generation of elected metro mayors will be able to spur regional economic growth and deliver innovative local public sector reform. But that vision is under threat.

To explain why, imagine it is the day after a mayoral election. The victor convenes a meeting of the city region’s local authorities, public sector bodies, Local Enterprise Partnerships and citizen groups. Opening the session, the new mayor highlights the most important question on the agenda. How will these bodies - that have never before been part of one political unit - work together to deliver the two key aims of city devolution - boosting the region’s economic growth, and innovating to reform local public services?

It will very soon become apparent that what they need is data. Data will be required to identify the scale and location of the problems they seek to tackle and the demand they aim to meet across the city region. Where are the areas of urban deprivation? What’s the exact distribution of demand for bus and tram services? Where would investment money best be spent to support the growth of new businesses?

Data will be required to execute their powers effectively. Many of the best tried-and-tested ways of increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of public services - joining up services across local authority boundaries, intelligently coordinating activity between different public sector partners, predicting and preventing problems from occurring - require making smarter use of data.

And data will be required so that mayors can monitor whether their activities are producing the desired results. Central government will likewise demand data to assess whether its key objectives for city devolution are being met. Here lies the problem.

The data deficit

With few exceptions, UK cities have failed to put in place even the most basic mechanisms to join up, analyse and act upon the vast quantity of data they already have. Even London’s City Hall does not systematically collect data from the 33 boroughs over which it presides, other than that required for statutory purposes. Left unresolved, mayors will be leading blind.

Smart Devolution, a report for Policy Exchange, argues that the answer lies in another of the government’s policy programmes directed at the UK’s urban areas - smart cities.

Specifically, UK cities should emulate the data-driven smart city approach taken by New York. There, the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics provides a small team of data analysts - reporting directly to the mayor - who have the time, resources and political backing to bring together data from across the city’s five boroughs and 40+ public sector bodies to predict and prevent problems from occurring, better manage the city’s resources, and target policies at areas of greatest need.

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Their approach has already helped drive new business growth, model the impact of proposed legislation, and improve education provision for vulnerable families. These are precisely the capabilities UK city mayors will need.

Next, cities need to tap into the amazing information resources held by organisations outside the public sector. Mobile phone operators, electronic payments companies, supermarkets and logistics firms (to name just a few) collect vast amounts of data in the course of running their businesses. Aggregated and anonymised, that data should be harnessed to benefit citizens, too. For example, analysing mobile phone and payments data can show how people move around and interact with their city, helping improve the planning of future public transport provision.

To access that data treasure trove, each region needs a City Data Marketplace (CDM). Similar to how websites like TaskRabbit.com connect those offering their skills for hire with those that need jobs done, a CDM would enable different creators and consumers of city data to buy, sell, request or freely exchange data. This smart city approach would help unlock, correctly price, and stimulate demand for data held by citizens, businesses and other organisations.

With over 80% of the UK population living in urban areas, much rides on ensuring cities’ future success. City devolution offers to give them the powers they need to address local needs and play to local strengths. Smart cities offer to bring cutting-edge technology and data techniques to help cities cope with growing pressure on public services, transport, infrastructure and energy.

But cities will need both things - brains and brawn; powers and the tools to use them. Smart devolution.

Eddie Copeland

Eddie Copeland is former head of the technology policy unit at Policy Exchange

This was last published in January 2016

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