How much does an Urban Data Platform cost?

08.09.2017
By Graham Colclough
EIP-SCC news

I was asked that very question a couple of days ago by a city who was in the process of acquiring one. 

It was the same question I some of the cities that responded to the EIP-SCC Urban Platform city survey in 2015; and frankly, I have no better answer now than at the time of the survey. 

What I do know is that city data is the fuel that feeds the smart city engine, and it is one of the most vital bits of kit that a Smart City Lead in any city around the world is entirely legitimate to seek to put in place – and should probably ‘own’ as a project, if not as an asset in its operation. That is not the case for much of the other ‘smart’ kit that gets stuck into cities. 

So what do we know about how much a city platform costs? And do we have a clue how many cities actually have one? Indeed, at a basic level have we agreed what an ‘urban data platform’ is? I fear perhaps not. So, let’s perhaps address those three questions – in reverse order:

Question 3:   What is an ‘urban data platform’?

Three little words – however meanings matter. This question is perhaps the easiest to answer however. Not necessarily with an internationally recognised definition, rather, with the text we have consistently used within the EIP-SCC UP initiative:

An ‘Urban Platform’ is

…the implemented realisation of a logical architecture/design that brings together (integrates) data flows within and across city systems

…and exploits modern technologies (sensors, cloud services, mobile devices, analytics, social media etc)

…providing the building blocks that enable cities to rapidly shift from fragmented operations to include predictive effective operations, and novel ways of engaging and serving city stakeholders

…in order to transform, in a way that is tangible and measurable, outcomes at local level (e.g. increase energy efficiency, reduce traffic congestion and emissions, create (digital) innovation ecosystems, efficient city operations for administrations and services)

Not a short definition perhaps – however short ones often lead to misinterpretations. Hopefully this does give us the necessary boundaries and shape to address the main question?

Oh, and by the way, if we have text for the ‘engine’, we probably need to do the same for the ‘fuel’.

City Data’ is

City data is that which is held by any organisation - government, public sector, private sector or not-for-profit - which is providing a service or utility, or is occupying part of the city in a way that can be said to have a bearing on local populations and the functioning of that place.

It can be static, near-real time or in the future, real time, descriptive or operational.

Further, in the future, data will be to a greater extent generated by individual citizens and this too (with due consideration to privacy and a strong trust framework) can be considered city data.

If you’ve got better alternatives, or some subtleties to add, do let us know.

Question 2: How many cities have an ‘urban data platform’?

We ran a survey back in 2015 and…
“Less than 30% of cities that replied have an urban platform. Cities appear to be “sitting on the fence”. Three main issues emerge: 

  1. Poor knowledge of the landscape & lack of confidence and capacity within cities; 
  2. Cities struggle to get the silos to work together, thus prohibiting effective action
  3. Cities suffer budget / funding constraints

In looking back at the results, it was also interesting to note from the survey that place-based services were the centre of attention (the wonders of GIS).
Less than 30%. I wonder how much that’s changed? And does it risk or support the ambitions of our initiative:

  • By 2018, create a strong EU city market for Urban Platforms 
  • By 2025, ensure that 300m residents of EU cities are supported by Urban Platform(s)

I have a suspicion there’s more to do to stimulate the market. maybe that’s about steps to address those barriers.
The SCC01 Smart City Lighthouse programmes probably play an important role in supporting this,  and to date around 50% of the 50+ cities have already signed the Letter of Intent (LoI). Hopefully more to come!

Question 1:   How much does an urban data platform cost?

This is the key question. Alas, the diversity of answers in 2015 didn’t help. From a big city that spent a few hundred thousand, to a number of others that spent single digit millions. And a few that were relying on EU Structural / National Grant funds; or Industry investment. Not paying for something, tends to lead to not valuing it sufficiently. In any case, the 2015 answers neither felt accurate, nor suggested a business model that would sustain.  We need to do much better now if we are to address the barriers to action.

So, what are the determinants of cost for an Urban Platform?

The new BSI Urban Platform Management Framework seeks to provide tools for cities to accelerate through the pre-procurement steps of acquiring a platform. Alas it too suffers from paltry information on platform cost data, which means business case justification is very hard. Which probably means fewer cities are taking steps to exploit their data. Addressing this is therefore a genuine priority! Here’s a stab at addressing the question. Please do build on it!

1. What primary function is being addressed? 

     a. Analytics function only to support infrastructure and service planning 

     b. Service operation and (near-real-time) optimisation

2. What core elements of scope are included?

    a. Field sensing

    b. Connectivity 

    c. Operational platform

3. What city service areas are being covered?

     a. A horizontal analytics platform that can span few to many service areas

     b. A select group of services as a proof point

     c. A number of significant domains: transport & mobility; energy; waste; health,             etc

4. Bespoke or Open Standard Solution?

     a. Big international industry supported (SI/OEMs), or local SMEs

     b. Employing open standards, or open source (with potentially, up front, for free)

5. How big a city are we dealing with?

     a. Population

     b. Number of individual municipal bodies

     c. Other governance complexities

6. What level of reporting is desired?

     a. A real-time multi-functional (“Mayor’s”) Dashboard

     b. Self-developed reports based on a generic reporting toolkit 

7. What business model is being applied?

     a. In-house ‘City hall’ build and run

     b. In-house design & run; market build

     c. Design & Spec in-house; Market (separate / joint) build and run

8. Who owns the platform and the data?

     a. City 

     b. PPP

     c. Market has data access to exploit

Which of these determinants have the most impact on capital and operations costs? What’s missing? 

In just writing these, it reinforces that this is surely not an easy question to address. However, if we do not, we will not help speed market progress. It will hold back many city ambitions. 

So where to from here? 

Some might suggest we develop a ‘calculator’ for this. I’ve very rarely seen these succeed in that people trust the answer; and think there’s a far more pragmatic way forward. 

And it’s simple! 

We confidentially collect the answers for above questions, and the capital/operating cost, and see what that tells us. I strongly suspect this will move us forward in leaps and bounds.

What do you think?

Share your views on Twitter. Debate it at 2017 General Assembly.

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About the author:

Graham Colclough is a partner in UrbanDNA. He is the chair of the Integrated Infrastructures action cluster and is reachable integratedinfrastructures@eu-smartcities.eu.