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CAKE Mix: Space, Place & Location Data

Thursday 25th April saw our 30th Collaboration and Knowledge Exchange event – ‘Space, Place and Location Data’, housed in the Enterprise Suite at Sunderland’s Hope Street Xchange.

Kicking off proceedings ahead of our main speakers was Richard Duncan from Startup SAFARI. Richard spoke about the upcoming Startup SAFARI event happening 21st-23rd May. The event is ideal for startups, investors, students and job-seekers to make connections and discover opportunities across three days themed around ‘Life and Health Sciences’, ‘Creatives’ and ‘Immersive Tech’. Tickets are available from the Startup SAFARI website.

First up from our main speakers was Roger Burrows, Professor of Cities at Newcastle University. Drawing on his recently published work, The Predictive Postcode: The Geodemographic Classification of British Society, Roger gave a wide-ranging talk on geodemographics, highlighting the growth of big data which is becoming increasingly commercial and interactional. This data can be used to locate us, not just in terms of where we live and work, but even our level of wealth, skill-set, and voting behaviour.  Unsurprisingly, this kind of data is being used routinely by political parties as well as big companies. There is even a website where you can enter your own postcode and see who ‘they’ think you are!

With this increasingly detailed data, a granular mapping is taking place which is specific to postcodes and even to addresses. This is not only descriptive, but prescriptive, and solidifying our habits. Professor Burrows gave the example that even though two people might live next to one another, they will come into contact with a whole different set of people and places. So, where we go increasingly comes to define us as much as we come to define the places that we inhabit. In effect, we are mapping out the city! Even adverts on Facebook are informed by geolocative data tailored to you which are both unique and traceable. These adverts can be tracked across the cities in which we live and signify a particular ‘habitus’. Roger’s memorable example was the location-based campaign used by ‘Meat Pack’ shoe store in Guatemala. Using GPS data from mobile phones, the store ‘hijacks’ customers from its competitors. The campaign captures the essence of Professor Burrows talk, highlighting the extent to which consumers are influenced in traceable ‘micromoments’ as they go about their daily lives.

This example of a data-driven shopping experience was an apt segue into our second talk from Dr Graham Thrower. Informed by his work as Head of Infrastructure and Investment at Urban Foresight, Graham highlighted the opportunities that data can produce within our experience of public services. A two-way dialogue between data and services means that there is the potential to endlessly customise and improve our experience of smart cities. However, there is the danger that shiny technological innovations distract from what should be the real focus: outcomes which positively affect real people. Graham gave the everday example of a person living in a house, independently but with early-stage dementia. There are huge opportunities afforded by dynamic data to inform their quality of life and care. For example, sensors in knives and spoons could give feedback to show the right utensils are being used for the right interactions. The same person might have other small devices to transmit health indicators and even environmental quality like the temperature of their homes. Such small examples show that, at best, dynamic data can be utilised to help people live safely and independently for longer.

Moving from private to public space, data generated by public transport, from e-bikes, taxis, and parking spaces, and our images on CCTV, are producing a profusion of interconnected data. Add the data from smartphones on top of that, and we have data from billions of sensors and decisions that can inform our experience of the city and improve our interactions within it. But, alongside this profusion of data, comes the problem of what to do with it all. Business models are still emerging for a lot of this data, and there are still questions of just how to monetise it all. But, Dr Thrower emphasised, data is not knowledge! This excess of data cannot adequately lead to solutions, just as the quality of life for those with dementia cannot be addressed by those in healthcare alone. The key to this is equality and inclusion. In today’s society, not all people have access to services which access rich data, and the data in some areas or from some individuals is valued more than others. This hampers positive societal outcomes. In the same vein, smart cities also face the challenge of trust.

For our third speaker, Nate Sterling, the question of trust is crucial not just in the relations between public and technology, but across platforms and between individuals. As Design Strategist at Grid, Nate’s focus is on designing activity rather than products, and on designing for people with a need to consider impact, engagement and accessibility. One such project is Grid’s work with SmartDublin, ‘Kerb’. In cities especially, there is a lot of interaction with the kerbside and, as a result, there is a lot of intellectual property around kerbside management. This links to wider societal problems with emissions and pollution, especially in concentrated cities.  Grid have been working on solutions to kerbside use, in particular, innovating a way to temporarily lift yellow line restrictions. The app that has been created is a win-win for public authorities and commercial operators with a reduced risk of fines and an overall improved system for the management of kerbsides around peak traffic times. Another of Grid’s projects, ‘Dash’, was piloted and tested closer to home in Sunderland. The work behind Dash was driven by a desire to create a more connected marketplace which would give market traders access to new customers. ‘Dash’ connects traders to new markets through couriers, who themselves operate green or electric vehicles.

Nate gave insight into the behind-the-scenes of these projects, highlighting the importance of interpersonal trust and engagement. Wanting to facilitate conversations as part of their process, Grid work to simplify the design process, emphasising dialogue and patience as much as outcomes. Consultation is also forming an important part of Grid’s approach to working with citizens as a whole. Referencing Grid’s work with the likes of Innovate UK for software trials, and User Experience Expert Helena Hill for messaging and branding, Nate highlighted the importance of determining the right language with which to engage with citizens. Ultimately, if companies and designers can’t communicate and engage with the people that they are designing for, then the work itself is lost.

As with all of our CAKE events, we rounded up the morning with an insightful Q & A session with all three speakers. Topics ranged from the philosophical  (does data mean that businesses know more about us than we do?) to the ethical (should we be more resistant to facial recognition? Who funds these data services and what is their agenda?). Public involvement, knowledge and consultation emerged as key themes through the talks and the Q & A, with our speakers highlighting opportunities at the Mining Institute’s open lecture series and the Urban Rooms Network.

You can find out more about Nate Sterling’s work in his blog, unstudied.

The Predictive Postcode: The Geodemographic Classification of British Society by Richard Webber and Roger Burrows can be ordered here.

Many thanks to all our speakers and contributors who made CAKE30 so fascinating and informative. Keep an eye on our website and Eventbrite page for announcements about CAKE31.