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Case Study - Tombolo

The Tombolo Digital Connector is a new piece of open-source software designed to interconnect datasets and urban models. Urban specialists can now create models based on a much wider range of data sources. Because of its modular structure, the software can be expanded by users to cater for a diverse range of datasets.

Applying an open and standard approach to urban modelling will accelerate data-driven decision-making in cities. Policy makers, planners, designers and developers all stand to benefit from generating and sharing urban models.

Models based on information such as healthcare statistics and infrastructure data are used by city planners and developers to predict the impact of their policies and projects across topics such as the economy, environment and health.

This type of analysis forms a crucial part of a city’s ability to plan one or two decades ahead, and helps highlight urban areas that need intervention. Tombolo, an open source software project, is set to further expand these modelling capabilities. The tool makes it easier to combine and interpret multiple data sets, enabling evidence-based decision making about city services such as transport or healthcare.

The more data can be integrated into a model, the more precise the impact of a particular change can be predicted. But the data sets and modelling tools used by the various government departments and businesses involved in delivering city services are often very diverse in nature, and don’t always integrate well.

Because the market had so far not produced a solution to this problem, Future Cities Catapult, the Government-backed global centre of excellence in urban innovation, stepped in to help remove this major barrier to entry for companies with solutions to city challenges.

The Catapult teamed up with geospatial modelling company Space Syntax, enabling it to investigate exactly which data sets and models could be combined and developed into a single software solution. The resulting open source tool is now set to be applied to urban challenges in cities around the UK, opening up new market opportunities for businesses with solutions to issues in areas ranging from transport to healthcare.

The open source license allows companies to commercialise certain aspects of the software itself, starting in 2018.

Evidence-based decisions

The software has been developed in collaboration with Leeds, Greenwich and Milton Keynes, enabling them to make evidence-based decisions when developing policy and delivering services. “By making integrated urban models using open data we’ve been able to show how urban systems work together. To measure access to a key service, or to understand if people in one part of the city rely more on private car use than in other areas, for example,” explains Ed Parham of Space Syntax, which was spun out of University College London. “When we combine this with demographic data models, we can identify where there are potentially higher risk populations in the least well served parts of a city.”

Space Syntax is working with Future Cities Catapult experts and with a range of teams involved in social policies to create city indices by integrating urban data-sets. The sources of data that can be combined range from ‘soft systems’ data such as health statistics or household income and ‘hard systems’ data like street maps and infrastructure data.

“More and more data is becoming opened up and freely available – take the UK government’s open data portal for example – but what next? By enabling urban specialists to combine otherwise isolated data sets we can reveal the links between, for example, transport infrastructure and issues such as long-term health problems,” says Jon Robertson, a project manager at Future Cities Catapult.

“By enabling specialists to share their good work with a growing community urban modellers we expect good ideas to spread. This is a powerful tool that has the potential to help policy makers and service delivery leads spot shortcuts to improving the socio-economic situation in their cities,” he said.

Prototype

A prototype of the Tombolo tool will be tested in several cities throughout the UK in 2017, including Leeds, Milton Keynes and the London borough of Greenwich. Other cities and organisations interested in taking part can contact the project through the Tombolo website.

The software is targeted at technical users such as consultants, data scientists and software developers, within city councils, academia and the corporate world, who can use it to support their urban analysis projects and applications. The tool can be adapted to fit local software environments and requirements. Beyond the Tombolo project, Future Cities Catapult’s network of academic and private partners will continue to share knowledge, solutions and data to ensure the ongoing development of the software.

“As data scientists and urban modellers we spend a lot of time on the tedious task of downloading and understanding the structure of different data-sources in order to make them interoperable,” says Börkur Sigurbjörnsson, a data scientist at the Future Cities Catapult.

“Thanks to Tombolo, we can focus more of our time on the actual modelling,” he stressed.

Tombolo is partially funded by Innovate UK, the UK’s innovation agency, which wants the software to help grow the supply of advanced modelling capabilities across the UK, and stimulate demand in cities.

Contact Jon Robertson Project Manager or Börkur Sigurbjörnsson Technical Lead for more information.

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