Asking the Right Questions: Understanding Data for the Future of Smart Cities

Earlier this month, Kristy Ferguson, Project Manager & Senior Business Analyst, and Cynthia Gillespie, Director of Advisory Services, addressed the attendees of Smart Cities Week 2019.

Held in Sydney, our two representatives added our voice to the discussion around Smart Infrastructure: Equitable Communities.


Cynthia graced the stage on the second day of the conference alongside Romilly Madew AO, CEO of Infrastructure Australia and Ian Maxted, Chief Development Officer of Broadspectrum – for a plenary session about smart infrastructure, and Australia’s future.


For the final day of the conference, Kristy and a strong panel of industry experts examined the latest and emerging techniques as well as approaches for generating value from data.


As part of the agenda, the panel deliberated questions around why insights and analytics are a critical part of data and why data insights are the key to smart cities.


Kristy says, “The issues discussed were not new, but certainly the circumstance and the context in which they are being viewed are relatively new, and it is rare to get so many industry experts in one place to talk them through.”


The biggest message she took away from the panel was that although we don’t know all the questions we might need to ask data in the future, it is imperative that we start collecting it now.


“Because data itself is dumb in isolation, we need to ask it useful questions to understand what it can tell us,” says Kristy.


To do this, the panel agreed on the importance of collecting data from multiple sources, aggregating it, standardising it, analysing it and comparing it to other data sets.


We also need to be realistic about the size of data sets we have access to, continually reassess our questions (and answers) over time, and ultimately ask ‘is this helping people’?


Kristy says, “A common example of why data insights are useful is weather forecasting. People generally like to know what the weather is going to be before they head out for the day, or make plans for the weekend.


“We may have historical temperature, rain and wind data sets and an understanding of atmospheric processes, which is not very useful in isolation. But when you start comparing the data sets, and analysing the trends over time, you can start to try and predict the weather.


“We want to be able to use data insights collected from cities to help make predictions, assist in decision making and ultimately manage our resources, assets, the environment and people more efficiently.”


The session also featured audience interaction where interesting issues were raised by the crowd including the question of why councils are not sharing data with each other.


Kristy says, “This was interesting, as there seemed to be a widely accepted consensus that we should be sharing data between cities, but there didn’t seem to be the resources or the budget to do so.


“Also, some audience members felt that councils were not sharing data because it was effectively giving away knowledge and power, and there was no incentive to do so.”


The panel also dissected what was instore for the future of data insights and its role as an enabler of smart cities.


Kristy believes that smart cities are not just about technology – they are really about managing our resources, assets, services and people efficiently and holistically.


“Data always needs to be vetted by, otherwise we can start to abdicate responsibility,” she continues.


“Data is very siloed; we need to find easy ways of collecting it and comparing it but not all of it should be shared. We need to protect people’s privacy.”


As to the role WSP is playing in delivering on this future, Kristy thinks we will play a big part in helping our clients use data insights and ask questions of Smart Cities data to help them manage services, assets, environment and people better.


In relation to our ongoing role with delivering the Newcastle Smart City platform, Kristy adds, “The discussion reinforced that Newcastle and WSP Digital are very aligned in our thinking around data for Smart Cities.


“If we build the foundation system that can collect, aggregate, standardise, analyse and compare data sets, we will be in a great position to ask the questions of the future.”


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