Data science will change the world

I attended Urban Analytics Data Dive event on 25 and 26 July at the Alan Turing Institute in London. With a strong faith that data science can change the world, the Alan Turing Institute joined forces with the Office for National Statistics (ONS) Data Science Campus to host the first policy-focused Data Dive. The event brought together PhD Students, postdoctoral fellows and early career researchers in data science with an aim to design data science solutions to real world challenges.
In two days, six teams tried to come up with innovative big data solutions to address the following three challenges: (1) where could we build more houses? (2) what are the benefits of access to green spaces? (3) can you develop novel early indicators of the health of the economy? In addition to already available Open Data sources, the teams were provided a wide range of additional data by the Satellite Applications Catapult, the Urban Big Data Centre and ONS. Also to help crunch the numbers, Microsoft provided each team resources on the Azure Cloud.
I worked in a team tackling the challenge of “what are the benefits of access to green spaces?” I chose this because it aligns with my research around using data to influence local planning and advocating for healthier environments. As there is already a lot of literature on the health benefits of green spaces and we have a pretty good idea where green spaces are (courtesy of satellite imagery and a new datasets provided by Ordnance Survey), we decided to focus on how and who can access green spaces.
Fortunately for me, we took Newcastle as our test case for figuring out these questions. We used datasets about green spaces and their entrances points and merged it with census data on commutes to work to figure out how likely people are to go through parks. Also we could say where would be the best entrance points to parks to increase their usage on commutes.  We showed how green each area of the city is and developed a walking index (how likely people are to walk through parks) from each area. All of these and other resources for our team are available at
This shows the power of data and how you can derive new interesting insights by merging different datasets rather than answering one specific question by polling citizens with surveys. As these insights are useful for policy makers, they could be equally useful for the people on the ground. Imagine an application which gives you alternative routes for commuting, cycling or running that utilises the most of green spaces. Also thinking about the issues of air pollution that the country is facing, we could equip people with knowledge on how to choose the healthier routes and alternative modes of transport. For example, by merging this data with air quality data from Urban Observatory. As a result, people would live a healthier life and this could save the NHS a lot of money.
At the end of the second day, each team had to present back their ideas, methodology, developed tools and other findings in a 10 minute presentation which was judged by professionals from the field. I, and all the people at the event, were amazed with the results people came up with in two short days. It show what you can achieve with motivated and skilful people when you bring them together and provide them with data and resources. Hopefully these events encourage governments and other institutions to open up their data and invite people with skills to use it for public good #datascienceforpublicgood.
Looking forward to new events and collaborations with The Alan Turing Institute and Data Science Campus.

For more information please contact Aare Puussaar.

Lab talk: Phil James

Phil James from the Urban Observatory came to Open Lab to talk about his work:

“A superficial reading of the press and the greater internet would suggest that the era of Smart Cities is already here,” Phil explained.

“All we need to realise this is finance and the political will. In reality, whilst many cities declare they are “Smart” the smartness resides in small pilot projects, or marketing hype.

“Here in Newcastle our approach is to develop a city test bed at the scale of the city to attempt to push the limits of sensor technology and understand their applications, develop holistic systems with multiple sensor types and data streams and learn how different types of monitoring data from physical observations to people’s impressions and ideas can be integrated to develop an Urban Observatory.

“The Urban Observatory programme is developing platform agnostic monitoring systems sampling many environmental and human factors across multiple spatial and temporal scales and addressing the socio-technical problems associated with large scale monitoring.

“The Urban Observatory provides a platform for research and it’s open data ethos means that anybody can access and use this data.

“We are currently working with a number of groups and researchers looking at well-being, community noise mapping, air quality interactions, data visualisation, integrated monitoring and real-time modelling, computer architectures for edge and cloud processing in sensor systems. We have a rolling programme of sensor deployments over the next 4 years focussed on research-driven monitoring. We currently received over 1,000,000 observations a day from over 300 sensors.”