How Belfast will use data to become socially inclusive

Written by Niki May Young on 13 December 2012

Belfast is one of the latest cities to win a prestigious IBM Smarter Cities Challenge grant to help manage its data more effectively. The city plans to use this opportunity to integrate inclusivity into its very fabric. Niki May Young reports.

 Amidst a backdrop of the latest uprising of sectarian conflict, Belfast city leaders have achieved a coup against the unrest. Having met stringent requirements, and proven a willingness to work openly and collaboratively, city leaders are to benefit from the data expertise of an IBM Smarter Cities Challenge team. I spoke with Mark Wakefield, IBM's UK corporate citizenship manager, who runs the programme in the UK, about what it took for Belfast to win the grant, and how other winning cities, such as Glasgow, have utilised the opportunity.

Cities from all over the world have presented an “extraordinary range of challenges” seeking the support of the technology giant, says Wakefield. From transportation, healthcare systems, and education systems to government organisation, the scheme received around 200 applications in each of its first two years. But Belfast's proposal seeking to create a more socially inclusive city struck enough of a chord to win one of the 100 coveted pro bono grants, worth an estimated $400,000.  

“Belfast is looking to see how they can best use data to deliver a more socially inclusive city, so that everybody regardless of faith or creed or whatever it may be, knows what is available, is able to access those things, and equally the city can have a better understanding about which groups within communities currently are not accessing some of the social, cultural, educational provision that's available to them. And the city thinks this is really important in terms of ensuring that the whole community is able to develop together and has the greatest level of opportunity to be socially and economically prosperous.” says Wakefield.

The implications in a city which has suffered significant stress on its infrastructure, services, tourism and cultural cohesion from conflict are clear. But despite being in tune with the desire for conflict resolution in the city, Belfast's win was not one of simple context. A winning city must work with IBM throughout the application process, and be open both during and beyond the programme's lifetime.

Belfast City Hall
Belfast City Hall

Collaboration and sharing are key

“Quite frankly one of the best things a city could do is to give me, or one of my 120-odd colleagues running the programme around the world a call. Contact and talk about the project, make sure they've understood the criteria,” says Wakefield.

“What we're trying to do through this is build up a body of knowledge and expertise around the whole range of different subjects which we can then share with other cities. So willingness to collaborate, willingness to share on some of the hallmarks of success, clarity and good focus on the project that the city wants us to help them address, the more focus and clarity they can give us, the more confident we feel,” he advises.

And that confidence will ultimately reward winning cities with a three-week consultation programme where they are assigned a team of five or six IBM experts. The programme is an intensive process where in week 1 - the diagnosis stage - the team could be meeting with as many as 100 people, holding 'speed dating'-style events, and all the while collecting and logging views to discover what the problems are, and where they can be addressed. In week 2 - the design stage - the team reflects and discusses what they have seen, coming up with and testing ideas for prospective implementation. Week 3 is spent communicating the resulting concepts to stakeholders – which can include 30 to 40 people.

It's a programme, therefore, that requires a city to be completely on board, says Wakefield. One of the requirements during the online application process is for a city leader to sign off on the project, and IBM seeks assurances in advance that it will have access to all the necessary data and staff during its three-weeks on site.

In Belfast's case its Mayor, Alderman Gavin Robinson, who was elected in June, fully embraced the programme and personally accepted the grant from IBM in New York in November. However 27-year-old Robinson is only guaranteed as Mayor until June 2013, three months before IBM currently projects it will join Belfast for its three-week appointment. Wakefield advised that political instability can be a barrier to progress when implementing resilience measures such as the Smarter Cities Challenge programme provides:

“We provide a sort of recommended timeline but cities are very complex and very political places. Things like elections get in the way, people come and go, things which we would recommend they do in the first year sometimes take two years or three years,” he says.

“It depends very much on the city, it's their call. It's down to them to decide what they want to implement, or even whether they want to implement and if so, how quickly they want to do it. Experience tells us that some cities do it really quickly and other cities will think it over for several months or even years before they start acting.”

Glasgow from Queens Park

Acting fast

One city which has been able to speedily transform rhetoric into action is Glasgow, the first winning UK city. Glasgow's challenge was to combat fuel poverty, defined as any household which spends more than 10 per cent of its household income on heating and lighting, which currently affects around 33 per cent of the city's population. Despite already taking a lot of measures to combat the problem, the rising price of energy in the last few years has prevented the efforts from making an improvement. IBM was drafted to make the change with the limited resources on offer.

“It was very obvious when we started looking at what they were doing and how they were doing it that one of the big issues is citizen knowledge, citizen education. Do people really understand how to control their heating, how to read their meters, do they understand what the data from their meters is telling them, what do they do about that, do they have trusted people they can contact to get advice? And so on and so forth. Then we talked to them about using both structured data which they are familiar with, ie statistics and figures which are quantifiable, but equally beginning to think about some of the narrative or unstructured data they have in reports, all sorts of documentations, and beginning to use that as a basis for understanding what needs done and who needs help as a basis for intervention and for their future strategy,” said Wakefield.

Having been awarded the grant in 2011, Glasgow has acted quickly to review its 60 recommendations received with an advisory group being set up to decide which further actions to implement. And it decided last year to implement one recommendation immediately, offering all of its citizens over the age of 80 an additional £100 from its local funds towards paying their heating and lighting bills, Wakefield advises.

The Smarter City Challenge grant programme, estimated to be worth US$50m, has presented significant opportunities to cities worldwide since its launch in 2011. A decision will be made in the next couple of months as to whether to extend the programme past 2013, although Wakefield concedes it is a “significant investment”, which may not be cost effective to continue. Nevertheless, the 100 cities which will benefit from the advice and have the opportunity to develop resilience, in whatever way they have chosen, will provide lasting insight and inspiration for many more on using data to strengthen your city. And perhaps none more so that in the case of Belfast if its aim of social cohesion is realised.

Categories: Technology, Business, Belfast, Glasgow