How to Eat the Data Elephant? Cut it into Bytes!

How to Eat the Data Elephant? Cut it into Bytes!

Data is fuelling innovation in cities but let’s also consider the type of data-enabled society that we are seeking to create.

Among all the noise about smart futures, it looks as if the really smart citizens will be the ones who are in control of their own data

                 The New Scientist

Data is more than “big”, it is HUGE! It is the oil of the Smart City – a commodity so valuable that pioneering companies who are first to locate and mine it will shape the future of cities for decades to come. More fundamental questions about where, as a data-enabled society, we are headed are less commonly discussed, perhaps because the issues are interconnected and complex. A variety of interested parties are actively trying out models, exploring the “new rules” that might define how we learn to live with data but they are reaching very different conclusions. For example,

  • Some Cities are taking a commercial approach: Copenhagen’s City Data Exchange makes public and private data accessible with the aim of powering innovation. The City Data Exchange offers raw data to its customers as well as analytical tools. The cost of gathering and processing data is recovered through subscription charges and service fees.

  • Some companies are talking a public approach: MyDex has developed a Personal Data Store to give citizens a central point of control for their personal information and the potential to authenticate their ID to third parties or share with other users of the platform.

  • Some cities are taking charge: Songdo in South Korea is one of a number of cities that have been wired up, with screens for video chat in homes, offices, and shops. Sensors are ubiquitous. Cars are tagged and tracked. Residents track heating and lighting usage in real time and compare it to neighbours. Designed and led centrally, some see sinister reflections of Big Brother.

  • Some communities are building capacity: Bristol’s Knowle West Media Centre has developed a methodology for Citizen Sensing, which positions citizens and communities as co-creators of smart city applications and services. Their emerging Data Commons also invites consideration of different forms of collective data curation and ownership. 

Assuming the world continues to race toward global urbanisation, in the next 10 – 20 years every person, thing and space will be fitted-out with sensors that are streaming live data to the Cloud. We will be living in the age of “Peak Data”. Imagine that any of the examples set out above is taken to an extreme; what sort of society might this lead to? Here are some ideas,


A society where citizens are legally required to share data with the State – both directly and through a network of authorised Data Compliance Agencies - banks, landlords, schools, utility companies and of course, Internet Service Providers.   

Smart City technology is ubiquitous. Sensors track vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians and Ultra-High-Definition cameras scan faces and gestures millions of times everyday. Through advanced Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, movements are forensically logged, analysed and codified. City Control Centres are staffed by City Data Operatives who are alerted by algorithms to unusual patterns in the data that might indicate cause for concern. 

 This “snooping” is not popular but it is tolerated because it helps to protect people from their escalating fear of terrorist attacks and it helps manage the consequences of unstoppable climate change, such as debilitating air quality, violent storms and flash flooding, which have become a regular occurrence. The Government Department of Predictive Analytics helps to stamp-out crime even before it takes place. It is not quite “Minority Report” but it is not far from it.

Data has fundamentally changed the economy as all markets are dynamic; prices rise and fall based on second-by second analysis of supply and demand. The principle underpinning public services is that you pay for your net consumption, for example, being charged to drive down the most polluted or congested streets whilst being rewarded for making a “clean” journey; paying taxes based on the weight of the rubbish in household bins minus the number of items recycled. Unnecessary waste is prohibited. The Department of Smart Energy remotely turns-off house lights when sensors detect that no one is home and the Department of Food Resilience sends out suggested recipes based on the expiry date of the food in your fridge. 

There are, of course, people who prefer not to give their data to the State but as it is a crime, they operate through the Dark Data Web and live on the margins of society.


Less “Big Brother” and more “Big Sister” (sic) this society cares about community well being and citizen empowerment. Data is used primarily to help people to help themselves. The Government created the Agency for Data Good (ADG) as an arms length, independent, community interest company. The ADG manages all data on behalf of Government. Its mission is “do good things with data” and its key metrics of success is citizens’ happiness with Government… and their community.

Citizens willingly share data for the community’s benefit and local services work well because they are co-designed and user-focussed. Whilst not compulsory, data sharing is seen as everyone's civic duty; failure to share is frowned upon so there is a lot of peer pressure to confirm. Particular attention is given to meeting the needs of the most vulnerable. For example, algorithms match those who like to cook to those who can't afford to eat; loneliness is predictable and friends can be socially prescribed. There are, of course, regular disagreements about the best uses of data. Where agreement can't be reached amicably, the ADG’s Chief Data Ethics Officer intervenes - and “her” word is final


In the My Data Society all data is personally owned. It is entirely up to the individual with whom data is shared. In some instances, data is freely exchanged, for example, between patients and GP's – to help refine the National Genome and support Artificial Intelligence based diagnostics but generally, data is understood to have commercial value. The result is a vibrant personal data marketplace where, for example, energy suppliers, supermarkets and banks bid competitively against each other to provide personalised services to customers based on individual household consumption and spending patterns.

The State  provides services in return for personal data but data has to be high quality and well maintained. Consequently, Data Literacy is taught in schools and individuals spend a great deal of their own time curating, managing and cleaning their data, which is collected on every aspect of daily life from birth to death. Parents are custodians of their children's data until they reach 16 - the age of data maturity. When they die, people bequeath their personal data archives as part of their estates.

In the My Data society the social contract has been replaced by the free market. Personal data is society's most valuable commodity so if you don't collect it or trade it then you will certainly loose out.


As data became increasingly valuable to Universities, Government, businesses and civil society, the Commons emerged as a way for society to ensure that everyone who contributes data benefits. Under the Commons, data is held in trust by Data Cooperatives where all members share equally in the value that is created. There are no proprietary business models where all of the value accrues to a single company. Instead, the focus is on shared solutions and local economy - with value locked into the city and its communities. 

Government and business are part of the Data Commons but they are equal partners with citizens. This has led to much innovation in public procurement and new, shared business models for example, in the energy sector, where real-time data on local energy consumption, production and storage has led to communities trading energy with each other; and in transport, where pooling data on end-to-end journeys has enabled a wide range of new, smart mobility ‘on-demand’ services. Anyone who wants to join the Data Commons is free to do so as long as they adhere to the rules of the Cooperative Societies that they belong to. Membership is voluntary rather than compulsory so people or agencies can choose not to participate. However, competing with the Commons is actively discouraged, as this undermines the collective value for society.


It is clear that data is anything but vanilla - it is political, social, environmental and economic. It will increasingly shape how cities are planned and how they develop and operate in future. The scenarios imagined above are neither right nor wrong – they are simply possible and in some instances are just about with us now. There are elements of truth and need within each, which imply both rights and obligations for citizens. The 'Right to be Forgotten' seems likely to become embedded in law in the near future, for the first time, allowing deep consideration and control of the visibility of personal data in the public domain. Imagine that this is just the first in a suite of Data Driven Rights, followed perhaps by ‘the Right to be Remembered’ - bringing certainty to Data ownership after death; ‘the Right to Share on our Own Terms’ - a world where companies have to tick to accept ‘my standard terms and conditions’ rather than the other way around. And what about ‘the Right to Shared Value’, where those who provide data benefit through being given a real stake in the commercial value that is created? In this way, perhaps, we can start to discuss the complexities of the Big Data Society by breaking down the issues into byte-sized pieces.


Stephen Hilton is a Fellow of the University of Bristol Cabot Institute and founder of Bristol Futures Global, a consultancy that supports cities, businesses and communities to be both Smart and Citizen-focused. Email: Twitter: @BristolFutures