The picturesque hamlet of Yockenthwaite, in the Yorkshire Dales, viewed from just below, from the other side of the River Wharfe, beside a small, old red post-box stuck on a wooden post and a small stone bridge, over which runs a dirt track pocked with rain puddles, that runs up a short way up to the hamlet rising, behind which the dale, with a scattering of sheep, bare trees and dry-stone walls, rises to meet a grey-blue, cloudy skyline

Yorkshire takes lead in smart city transformation

Image credit: By Alison Christine - Flickr: Yockenthwaite - A Yorkshire Dales Hamlet, CC BY 2.0,

The Yorkshire city of Hull has taken the lead among northern cities building smart city data platforms through which they will put local public services up for restructuring by tech innovators, in an effort to attract entrepreneurs and boost the economy.

Hull started implementing an ambitious plan last week to create a smart city platform that will combine data collected from cities across the whole of the North of England, and use it to catalyse reform of public services whose rigid organisational hierarchies are believed to have become an obstacle to progress in the data age.

While cities across the north have been competing to gee up their local software industries, to claim world ranking in digital transformation and attract international investors, Hull leaped ahead by formalising plans to buy a £1m data platform through which it intends actually to make its smart city ambitions happen, and as soon as March next year.

Ian Anderson, chief legal officer at Hull City Council, said it had built a specification against which council systems would have to be compliant in the future, so any data they produced could be fused to create one complete picture of city affairs. Any software it acquired in the future would have to be capable of sharing its data with Hull's smart city platform.

Its aim, said Anderson, was to break down barriers that prevented municipal services from sharing their data - to break open the "silos" - as he and other transformation reformers call public services earmarked for digitisation, to invoke the idea they are bunkered and impregnable to reform.

Hull's plan was to force open the incompatible software systems by which large suppliers dominated each public service and sustained their silo barricades.

"One of the problems this is intended to prevent is having lots of vertical silos where suppliers provide you with a comprehensive, single solution for one aspect of a smart city," said Anderson, who wrote the Smart City Strategy in which Hull published the rationale for its reforms in September.

"Dell offer a platform for property management. So they offer the whole thing all the way up as a single vertical silo. And you get litter bin operators doing the same sort of thing. Then you end up with lots of places where you have to go for each element. So you've got lots of different ports and this is not terribly smart," he said.

The same concept has motivated smart city plans in other municipalities. The city would be peppered with sensors to monitor its daily bustle minute-by-minute, metre-by-metre - its traffic and pedestrian flows, pollution levels, the whereabouts of its municipal workers and vehicles, the state of health of people in its care, and to feed all the data they collected into a single pool, from which innovative start-up companies would draw from its fused intelligence ideas to revolutionise they way things were run. Other municipal systems should be able to plug into the nerve centre.

Other northern cities have been cautious or unhurried about formalising their own smart city reforms, focusing instead on whipping up local support among local tech businesses, and giving them municipal data with which to develop innovations that prove the case for digital transformation of public services, to create a groundswell of reform. They have dedicated their plans to boosting the local economy by giving young local firms an opportunity to develop and deliver public service innovations, effectively in 'co-opetition' with those public bodies that run the services.

Manchester is still drafting its smart city plan after completing a two-year 'CityVerve' pilot for a smart city transformation in the summer. Sheffield has been running 'conflabs' with local companies to catalyse transformation without launching any formal strategy. Bradford has made no apparent progress since declaring it had built a smart city sensor network last year. Leeds has published plans to introduce the possibility of smart city transformation on the back of an upgrade of its street lighting. Liverpool, a source of academic criticism of the smart city concept, announced its first pilots only after celebrating its tech entrepreneurs at a smart city conference it held in the summer.

Mark Duncan, who led Manchester's CityVerve pilot, told E&T it wanted to have conversations with citizens and local businesses before it went any further with its smart city plans. Manchester was rewriting its digital strategy, he said, and would put it to public consultation, to generate ideas for it.

Sheffield formed a ‘Digital Coalition’ with Sheffield Digital, an association of local tech firms, last year, to which it delegated responsibility for its transformation agenda.

Mark Gannon, director of business change and information solutions at Sheffield City Council, said in a podcast at the time that it formed the coalition to drive digital transformation in the council. He wanted the coalition to write Sheffield's smart city strategy, he said.

"My aspiration is building a coalition of the willing within the digital sector," he said. He had begun talking to Digital Sheffield to bring a “change of approach” in the council, to involve the private sector more, in search of civic leadership the city lacked, and to avoid the usual governance.

The council should be a curator of innovation, he said. It should seek to facilitate.. not rule the roost. He sought through the coalition to build a community of change makers in the council, and modelled it on the Government Digital Service, a department of the Cabinet Office that drove public service transformation under the directorship of then secretary of state Francis Maude, under the coalition government of David Cameron.

Newcastle, the other city that has progressed furthest with a formal strategy, is running six months late with plans similar to Hull's. A council decision that approved its plan in July said it would publish a formal notice in the Official EU Journal in the summer.

But Jenny Nelson, Newcastle City Council digital programme manager, and author of its digital strategy, told E&T its smart city plan was so radical that its lawyers were still trying to draft contract terms by which it would procure a platform and begin its transformation. Newcastle was the only urban centre in the north to be excluded from Hull's plan for an all-encompassing smart city platform.

Hull would would invite four candidates to compete to supply its data platform, said a contract notice it published in the Official EU Journal on 3 November. Anderson said it had analysed the market and concluded the four likely candidates were US networking giant Cisco, Cambridge-based data analytics firm GeoSpock, Czech smart city platform integrator Invipo, and Siemens (on the strength of its Scoot traffic and parking system). Cisco has been instrumental in setting up smart city pilots and pushing the reform agenda in Hull, Newcastle and Manchester.

In preparation for its smart city strategy, Hull did an 18-month survey of existing council software systems it deemed core to its plans, and found they were “deficient”, according to the Digital Smart City Strategy it published in September. It found deficiencies in systems including those handling geographic information, and doing traffic management, asset management system and waste management.

But by March, when it intended its chosen platform supplier to start work, the city itself would be prepared, it said. The whole city by then would have been connected with a low-power wireless (LoRa) network of the sort necessary to provide smart city sensors a means of communicating their data; and a Wi-Fi network it had contracted local network specialist and Cisco smart city partner Connexin to install in 2016. Connexin was implementing Hull’s LoRa network using technology supplied by French firm Actility.

Hull’s integrated Smart City Platform would then provide a “horizontal foundation” to “integrate, transform, manage and control” vertical council systems, “to promote a better quality of life for residents and gain operational efficiencies for the Council”.

It would aggregate data from a wide range of devices, including sensors, actuators, mobile devices, cameras and vertical software systems, and feed the results to artificial intelligence algorithms that would make real-time adjustments to municipal control systems such as administer lighting, traffic flows, car parking, and CCTV.

“The Public Sector in Hull already manages large volumes of data,” it said. “However, until recently data has been managed in silos.

"Through this project Hull is looking to greatly improve how it uses this valuable resource by bringing the disparate sets of data together,” it said.

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