Illustrator Jack Daly‘s interpretation of Sally’s future vision for how a Smart Places approach could improve future places. Scroll down to read about the thinking behind Jack’s visual response to the article.

‘Why local data is the key to successful place making’ by Sally Kerr

Article 7 of 7 in the Smart Places illustrated blog article series featuring thought pieces from a diverse line up of thinkers, practitioners, experts and leaders in this field. View the other articles here, or find out about the full programme of events.

The COVID emergency has brought many challenges that were unimaginable a few months ago. The first priorities were safety and health, but when lockdown started one of the early issues was accessing and sharing local data to help everyone deal with and live through the emergency. Communities grappled with the scarcity of local data, finding it difficult to source for some services, food deliveries and goods. This was not a new issue, but the pandemic brought it into sharp relief.

Local data use covers a broad spectrum. People moving to a new area want information about the environment — schools, amenities, transport, crime rates and local health. For residents, continuing knowledge of business opening hours, events, local issues, council plans and roadworks remains important, not only for everyday living but to help understand issues and future plans that will change their environment. Really local data (hyperlocal data) is either fragmented or unavailable, making it difficult for local people to stay informed, whilst larger data sets about an area (e.g. population, school performance) are not always easy to understand or use. They sit in silos owned by different sectors, on disparate websites, usually collated for professional or research use.

Third sector organisations in a community will gather data relevant to their work such as contacts and event numbers but may not source wider data sets about the area, such as demographics, to improve their work. Using this data could strengthen future grant applications by validating their work. For Government or Health bodies carrying out place making community projects, there is a reliance on their own or national data sources supplemented with qualitative data snapshots. Their dependence on tried and tested sources is due to time and resource pressures but means there is no time to gather that rich seam of local data that profiles individual needs.

Imagine a future community where local data is collected and managed together for both official organisations and the community itself. Where there are shared aims and varied use. Current and relevant data would be accessible and easy to understand, provided in formats that suit the user — from data scientist to school child. A curated data hub would help citizens learn data skills and carry out collaborative projects on anything from air quality to local biodiversity, managing the data and offering increased insight and useful validation for wider decision making. Costs would be reduced with duplication and effort reduced.

How could this happen and how might it operate?

A data trust is one method. It is a legal structure that provides independent stewardship of some data for the benefit of a group of organisations or people. It could provide an opportunity for local people to directly participate in local decision making by creating and maintaining accurate and valuable data that provides a rich insight into the needs of the area.

The local library could be the data hub for the trust, curating and managing data as it does with other deposited items relevant to the local area. Use of the data would be managed appropriately and ‘lent’ to users according access rights and data licence. Trusted users, acting as data stewards, with other members, would identify gaps and duplication in the collection, supporting projects to improve the data available. The hub could offer additional guidance from partners, provide equipment and offer training. Locally sourced data would be accessible to researchers as well as planners, architects, health workers and strategists. Technology would play a key role, both in terms of infrastructure but also innovation, using emerging tech such as personal sensors for data collection and use. Taking advantage of different technologies would expand data gathering opportunities through joint projects with businesses and Universities.

Creating a data hub is a way to improve place making in the round by bringing together data that covers hidden or unknown aspects of a community with a range of official data, (e.g. National statistics, council local area plans, land ownership and use), and would encourage collaboration on the challenges to be addressed. It boosts genuine democratic participation by empowering citizens to be active partners and supporters for their community and themselves. This shared resource could help both locals and officials to carry out open, shared and co-designed decision making. By having richer sources of data in one place the community could inform and influence strategies that will impact them directly. Crucially, for organisations working to improve the area, it could drive better place making outcomes by building a shared understanding of the community.

Interested in discussing this article? Leave a response below or join Sally for a one hour Twitter discussion on Thursday 25 June from 3pm–4pm. Take part in, or follow the Twitter discussion using #SmartPlaces.

You can find out more about the Smart Places series on the Edinburgh Living Lab webpage, including other upcoming authors and key dates for our online events.

Illustrator response to Sally’s article and future vision, by Jack Daly

My goal with any editorial illustration is to capture the primary theme of the article and convey it unexpectedly, often with the use of a visual metaphor. I find the challenge when it comes to creating an illustration about ‘data’ is to avoid the final piece feeling like a sterile infographic, with charts and graphs, etc. So that’s something I was mindful of.

In terms of my process, I normally begin all editorial illustration projects the same way; by reading the article twice, once to get a general understanding of the subject, then a second time to find specific phrases or quotes which I think could provide interesting visuals cues for the illustration.

The primary theme I took from Sally’s article, was the idea of local people coming together to collect and manage data for the betterment of their community. One description which I felt summed up the essence of this beautifully was “Locally sourced data”.

The idea of “locally sourced” has so many lovely, positive connotations and was something I thought worth exploring. My initial thinking was around some sort of community farmers market, where fresh produce was somehow used as a metaphor for data. My main reservation was that a market setting could suggest data being sold, which isn’t a great image! So, thinking a little more, it evolved into the idea of a local ‘data allotment’.

Allotments are virtually synonymous with ‘local’. It also provided an opportunity for the visual language of data, such as charts and graphs, to be subtly and playfully weaved into the landscape. Add people working together, carefully looking after that data in the heart of their community and it hopefully compliments the content of Sally’s article.

Sally Kerr — bio

Sally Kerr holds a Masters in Fine Arts from Glasgow University, although she has mainly worked in digital and data innovation in the public sector, and is currently working as an independent consultant.

She has led projects and digital services related to Open Data, Smart City and Internet of Things (IoT), with a focus on local government use working with national and international partners. She founded EdinburghApps, the open innovation programme and is also a cofounder of Edinburgh Living Lab. She is also an arts writer and product entrepreneur.

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