Let’s not waste this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity

buchananThe City Deal for Edinburgh and the south-east region comprises £300m each from the UK and Scottish Governments, with additional related investment bringing the total to around £1bn. With some of the finest data architects, cybersecurity professionals, and cloud architects anywhere in the world, we have the chance to create a new blueprint for the city; in the way that the designers of the New Town did all those years ago.

If, in five years’ time, I still need to attend a damp and smelly room in a community centre on a rainy evening on the last Wednesday of the month, to express my concerns and to contribute to the operation of the city, we have wasted our once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I hope ambitious targets can be set, and which can really stretch those involved to think  in new ways.

If we have spent it on a shiny new glass building in the middle of town and have funded a bunch of data scientists to write research papers and to present at “world- renowned” conferences, we have lost sight of creating a new virtual world, and which places the citizen at the centre. I write this as an Edinburgh citizen, and not in my role of an academic.

As tech-driven and innovative as it is, Edinburgh is a long way from being ready for large-scale ‘data fusion’. I worry that the new money will go into new buildings and in employing research staff, and, in the end, there will be little change which the citizen can point to and say that their lives have been changed.

Without leadership and a guiding light, and targets which take us into the 21st century, we could end up with an unfocused strategy. I hope that innovation becomes a key part of the new investment and that new thinking can promote the development of innovative companies, who can scale across the world. I hope that our small businesses get a chance to be part of the building of a new city, and that it is not all about universities defining the problems that need to be solved.

There are problems in Edinburgh which need to be solved – as in any city – and if a child in Wester Hailes does not have the same opportunities that a child with the same abilities in another part of the city has, we are not addressing the core issues. If we educate smart people from around the world, and then allow them to leave (even though they want to stay), we will not build an economy which can take its place in the world.

One thing is obvious; Edinburgh needs an architecture which supports the gathering of data – parsed from existing sets and from new ‘frictionless’ methods – and its presentation back to its citizens, and for our citizens to play an active part in contributing to this data. That is what democracy is all about.

Date over the wall?

Unfortunately, the public sector is often not setup to be a provider and enabler in the capture and provision of data. It often protects the data that it needs, and struggles to release it in a form that could  be useful. With political pressure, there is often a resistance to release tracking infor- mation on civic issues.

There are generally four main approaches*: 1 a status quo ‘data over the wall’ form of government data publishing; 2 a form of ‘code exchange’, with government acting as an open data activist; 3 open data as a civic issue tracker; 4  participatory  open data.

London is on a path from 1 to 4, has passed number 3, and now is working on 4. The London Datastore tracks key civic issues, such as jobs and economy, trans- port and housing. London is now also investing in full data sharing across the city, with a vision of it having “the most dynamic and productive city data market in the world. City data will be recognised as part of the capital’s infrastructure. And London will achieve global renown for data impact”.

For my own city – Edinburgh – we are still at ‘data over the wall’. From what I see most of the data within the Edinburgh open source portal is in the form of PDFs, and gives little pointers on the general health and activity of the city. There is little in the way of taking data from different sources, and fusing it together, and little in the way of dialogue with its citizens – apart from turning up at community meetings to meet my local councillor.

We need to drag our cities into the 21st century, and the City Deal is one way to take Edinburgh into a new world – built on data and cyber security. I hope that Edinburgh can become an amazing place of new ideas and place that those with great ideas will come to, and be part of a citizen-focused world. Businesses in the city should have an advantage in operating here, and be ready to integrate into a worldwide infrastructure, and where every citizen can be involved in the growth of the city.

I am going to say it: ‘Don’t let universities define the problem, as they will define their own problems that they want to ad- dress’. Let’s focus on building a new city, with software and cyber security, don’t do as we have done for the previous century. The City Deal is just too good an opportunity to miss, and I hope that it shows real vision, which doesn’t involve doing the same old things and benefit the same old people and organisations.

We need to build new cyber-enabled cities; otherwise, we have failed to properly create an infrastructure for our kids to move into, and they will leave and find the cities which best support their vision of a connected world. We, too, need to attract people with ideas from around the world and provide them with an infrastructure which allows them to take their ideas to the world.

My hope is that in five years’ time I can take to an international stage and present on how #edinburgh showed real vision and implemented one of the most advanced Blockchain and smart city infrastructures in the world, and truly engaged with its citizens and businesses. I hope I don’t have to make my concerns known through my local community centre – which is rather lovely, but not quite the place to voice major concerns – on a dark, rainy evening on the last Wednesday of the month.

Bill Buchanan is a Professor in the School of Computing at Edinburgh Napier University, and a Fellow of the BCS and the IET. For the full version of this article, go here.

*Civic open data at a crossroads: Dominent models and current challenges.