Newcastle’s Urban Observatory

Posted on 22nd Mar 2016 by James

A guest post by Phil James – Academic Lead on the Urban Observatory.

Urban Observatory logoThe Urban Observatory is funded as part of the University’s Science Central Programme to develop an urban sensing platform and capacity in Newcastle.  Building on over 10 years’ experience of urban sensing at Newcastle University the Urban Observatory has to date deployed over 150 sensors and holds over 50 million real-time observations with a throughput of over 200,000 observations per day.  Our data is all published in real-time for use by researchers, citizens and business.  Over the next five years an ambitious programme of urban sensing with an investment of over £2m in sensing hardware will enable transformative research and citizen participation and provide a robust evidence base for intervention.  The Urban Observatory is further supported with UKCRIC investment funds.

Smart Cities and Hype

There is an awful lot of hype around the smart cities agenda. Reading the press it would seem that all we need is the will and the finance and our cities will be super smart and somehow this makes life better the citizens. Here in Newcastle we are trying to go beyond the hype and build something usable based around real, open-data. Our dream is for a slightly less dumb city – a city where we are beginning to understand what sensors need to measure, with what level of accuracy and how many we need to understand the complex interactions in the city (or whether that is even possible). Urban sensing is really hard. There are massive procedural and physical deployment issues, the IoT technology, regardless of what the manufacturers claim, is in its infancy and the “science of sensing” barely warrants the epitaph. Casting around other “smart cities” one soon realises this is a marketing heavy, data light environment. When all cities say they are smart and present a couple of IoT pilot projects to prove it then the words become meaningless.


Our Goal and Future Vision

Our goal over the next five years is to keep Newcastle at the forefront of urban sensing. In the long term we want to inculcate an ethos of sensing by default – where policy is examined in the harsh light of data. We can only do this by trying to provide a baseline – when we know what the city is like now we have a chance of being able to say something about planned or actual interventions and their likely effect. Of course monitoring is only one small piece of the jigsaw in turning data into actionable information so the Urban Observatory is central to a wide range of related activity such as cross-sectoral modelling activity, data visualisation, big data management etc. that is happening across the University and beyond.

Making Infrastructure to Build Upon

We firmly believe that these systems must evolve and spread organically, partly due to cost as it is not cheap to deploy and maintain a sensing infrastructure and partly due to design – there are lots of organisations sensing stuff for their own operational needs and where possible we want to integrate and reuse this data. We don’t want to be tied to a single sensor type, manufacturer or technology. We have invested in building a sophisticated sensor-agnostic data platform and are building expertise in communicating with a variety of sensor types and platforms and published data streams. Above all we believe the best way to do this is by being open. Open in our data – it is published warts and all, open in the current level of our technical abilities and data quality, open in the problems and difficulties in deploying and maintaining sensors and open in our reflection on the wider issues such as long term governance and upkeep of monitoring data and open in what we don’t yet know. But we are ahead of the game – we have large scale deployments and many more planned over the next 5 years, we have a strong working and symbiotic relationship with the local councils, we have over 50 million published observations with a throughput of over 200,000 observations a day and rising, we have a sophisticated hybrid nosql-relational database infrastructure built on open source technology and a RESTful API and download facilities. We also want to engage – get people using our data, assist in deploying new sensors, support IoT technology in the region – so if you have an idea then come and talk to us.

Open. Simple. Scalable.

Phil James (email)
Academic Lead on the Urban Observatory.

NEData Meetup - April

Posted on 18th Mar 2016 by James

Please join us in the auditorium at Bunker Coffee, Carliol Square, Newcastle on the evening of Wednesday 6th April, featuring:

(…and more)

Doors: 6pm, Talks: 6:15, Social: 7:15 onwards.

Please take a ticket in advance!

National Institute for Smart Data Innovation - funding announced

Posted on 18th Mar 2016 by James

The Chancellor has announced funding for a new £30 million centre for data innovation within Newcastle University, partnering with Dynamo and other local organisations.

The National Institute for Smart Data Innovation (NISDI) will focus on realising the potential of big data to address specific challenges in areas including health, automotive and manufacturing.

More: [Newcastle University press release] [Dynamo press release]

Leading the way in open data

Posted on 13th Mar 2016 by Simon Hanson

Over the past year we at the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) in the North East have pushed for the North East and Tees Valley to lead the way in releasing and using open data.

We have done a lot to move us closer to achieving this. We’ve met with a number of Councils across the region to lay out our plans and understand how we can work together. To help showcase this we held a successful open data conference in September 2015 and have recently launched a monthly open data meetup in partnership with James Rutherford at Campus North in Newcastle.

Over the next year we are calling on all twelve local authorities in the North East and Tees Valley to work with us to ensure we are leading the way. There are some specific ways that we can work together which are outlined in more detail below.

Move to open by default approach

We’re pushing for all twelve local authorities to adopt an ‘open by default’ open data policy. In summary this means local authorities would publish data openly unless there is a good reason not to. We have seen similar policies being adopted in places like Leeds, Bristol and most recently Camden Council.

If the North East and Tees Valley is to meet our ambition of leading the way in open data moving to this open by default approach is fundamental. This open data policy should’t be treated in silo from the wider economic development and regeneration policy but be seen as a central part of it.

Appoint an open data champion

To help take the open by default approach forward we want all twelve local authorities to appoint an open data champion. Ideally the open data champion will be the person that is most committed within the authority to open data and working with the local community to achieve this.

Once appointed the FSB will host a meeting of all twelve open data champions on a bi-monthly basis to help us achieve the ambition of leading the way and sharing knowledge across the region.

Move to a 5 star approach

There is no other region in the UK that has seen all local authorities adopt the 5star deployment of open data benchmark. We want to see the North East and Tees Valley achieve this in the next year. This would see local authorities publish data in a way that can be used most effectively. There are more details about this at

North East and Tees Valley Open Data Challenge Series

We’re pushing for the North East Combined Authority and Tees Valley Combined Authority to replicate the Open Data Challenge Series launched by the Open Data Institute and NESTA. Independent research has shown that for every £1 spent on these challenges generated approximately between £5 and £7 in return. In both proposed devolution deals there are a number of areas that could be used as the bedrock for these challenges including human capital improvement, business support and public service reform.

Improving the data skills across the community

For any open data policy to be successful the data must not only be machine readable but human actionable. We have plans to work with the wider community in partnership with others to improve the data skills and knowledge across all sectors.

Through partnership we achieve more

No one organisation or individual will meet the ambitions for the North East and Tees Valley to be seen as leading the way in open data alone.

Working in partnership with local councils and the wider public sector we can achieve our ambitions for the North East and Tees Valley.

If you’re interested in this and would like to work with us email me at [email protected] or tweet us @FSBnortheast or @NEDataUK so we can start a conversation.