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Blog: Wider Engagement and Fresh Ideas Needed in Your City? A City Data Hack is a Great Place Start

Jon Robertson, Delivery Lead for Tombolo, reflects on our City Data Hack.

“Hey! You know what would be great. Why don’t we do a hackathon?”

I don’t think any of us knew the impact that Laura’s suggestion was going to have on us over the course of the following 6-months.

There we were, three people, trading ideas on how we were going to grow enthusiasm for improving city services through data, demonstrate different approaches to city innovation, engage a wide network of London innovators, support new businesses in testing their products and showcase some of our own software… all at the same time.

“Okay then, let’s do a Hackathon”, replied Charlotte.

“Great. Agreed! Has anyone done one of these before?” I asked.



Fast-forward 6-months and here we are reflecting on our achievements and building on our momentum. We’re enlightened, enthused, and energised by what was achieved in 48-hours with the help of over 60 participants, 10 teams, 30 mentors, 9 partnering organisations, 60-days of planning, 10-days of pre-engagement with partners, 100 customised name tags, many almond croissants, 850 tweets, 1.5m twitter impressions, countless hours of sacrificed sleep. We’re in awe of the experience and idea-collision we curated for people in one great weekend at the Urban Innovation Centre.

Was it worth it? Yes. Every city should consider doing something like this regularly if they want to support local data and digital innovation and change their own data culture.

But hackathon’s aren’t new. In fact, in some quarters they have a bad rep because expectations have been poorly managed around what might be achieved from one in the past. If you’re expecting a product at the end of 48-hours, then lower your expectations now. If you want fresh ideas, wide participation, open innovation, culture change and relationship development with academics, business and public authorities in your city — do a hackathon.

So, what did we achieve?

  1. We worked with three public sector organisations to define their pressing city challenges across Employment and Skills, Travel Planning, and Social Isolation: GLATfLLBBD
  2. We brought together over 100 data specialists, designers, developers, and mentors to the Urban Innovation Centrein London to form multidisciplinary teams capable of developing product prototypes in 48-hours
  3. We brought service design and data science together by drawing on collaborative support from Snook and our in-house design team
  4. We provided a testing ground for the data products of 3 UK SMEs: Emu AnalyticsThingfulSpace Syntax
  5. We also got to test out our new Tomboloproducts for data specialists: The Digital Connector and our Data Visualisation Application
  6. We demonstrated that an open approach to innovation can generate good outcomes for cities wishing to establish a stronger data culture and understand the art of the possible
  7. We learned that hackathons are a great way of mobilising a city’s data and digital innovators. Students, hobbyists, young professionals, public sector, private sector the passionate and intrigued

What happened next?

  1. Travel Planning. Transport for London used the outcomes of the Hackathon to form their future strategy around digitising travel plans. They’re keeping the winning team, 0-One, engaged this summer to flesh out their idea further toward something that can be publicly commissioned by the transport authority.
  2. Social Isolation. London Borough of Barking and Dagenham invited their preferred team Come2Meet to present back to social workers in their council chambers and signposted them toward a grant funded opportunity to develop their concept further. They also opened the door for UCL CASA MSc students to collaborate with their data science team on real social / spatial problems for their thesis this summer.
  3. Employment and Skills. Greater London Authority invited the winners of their hack challenge to city hall to celebrate. They’re now more informed about how to take building an employment and skills knowledge platform for Londoners forward.
  4. The Digital Connector. Future Cities Catapult released the Tombolo Digital Connector, an open source tool for data specialists that helps standardise data preparation, combining and sharing. We gained invaluable feedback over the weekend and more awareness around the platform.
  5. City Data Visualisation. Emu Analytics helped us demonstrate the City Data Visualisation It’s one of a number of data platforms Emu Analytics have helped clients to build and the first they’ve built through collaboration with local government and a Catapult. Taking part in the weekend has led to other opportunities for them.
  6. More Data. Space Syntax and Thingful opened up their datasets to our participants providing them with the ability blend spatial layout and IoT data into their projects.
  7. Hackathon Legacy. We made as much of this hack as open as possible – there’s numerous content available online to give others ideas on how to replicate it. The joining information, the projects,the presentations, the weekend summary video — they’re all available to provide inspiration for others.

Why should your city-region care about data?

City-regions are muscling to find their appropriate position in the global value chain. They’re ensuring that they’re equipped with a competitive blend of data and digital capability, infrastructure and a vibrant ecosystem with high-skilled jobs capable of drawing more value to their regions.

In February 2018, GMCA announced that its new Digital Strategy had been adopted across Greater Manchester. In the same month, West Midlands Combined Authority announced it is on the hunt to recruit its first Chief Digital Officer following an earlier announcement that WMCA will receive £800,000 over three years to create an Office for Data Analytics as part of its latest devolution agreement with central government. But there’s more that can be done. More Chief Digital Officer positions are needed. And will 2018 be the first year that city-regions consider appointing Chief Data Officers?

By investing in data and digital themselves, city-regions become more authentic when encouraging others to invest in their region. City-regions that invest in skills, culture, support the development local business and strategically procure and commission software together will succeed in taking their places forward in sectors. Those who don’t will lag behind; fragmented and without a collective imagination capable of striking a strong modern identity.

A hackathon is not a silver bullet or a panacea. But it is a good indicator of how much resource a city is devoting to data and digital innovation and how established its collaborative relationships are with local business, academic and research institutions.

The team behind City Data Hack

Tombolo), Laura Pye (Communications and engagement wizard, FCC), Charlotte Hutton (City data hack magician, FCC). Front Row (from left to right): Hemanshu Arya (Software developer, Tombolo), Eddie Jaoude (Seasoned hackathon sage & open source guru), Jon Robertson (me), Joseph Bailey (Data science lead, FCC). Other mentions: Katinka Schaaf, Aisling Conlon and Thanos Bantis

Tombolo), Laura Pye (Communications and engagement wizard, FCC), Charlotte Hutton (City data hack magician, FCC). Front Row (from left to right): Hemanshu Arya (Software developer, Tombolo), Eddie Jaoude (Seasoned hackathon sage & open source guru), Jon Robertson (me), Joseph Bailey (Data science lead, FCC). Other mentions: Katinka Schaaf, Aisling Conlon and Thanos Bantis

Jon Robertson is currently the Delivery Lead for Tombolo, organiser of City Data Hack, and leading Data and Digital projects at Future Cities Catapult. Follow me on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.

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