Birmingham’s new Smart City Vision Document is out. A fat wad of boilerplate surrounds a small core of actual ideas. It basically starts on page 22 and ends on page 24, and even then the ideas are smothered in dense officialese. The Birmingham Post thought it was all just vacuous blather. I’m not so sure. Sometimes policy gets deliberately obfuscated. The report’s ideas seems to boil down to…
* Faster broadband, claimed to attract inward investment / new jobs. [Birmingham certainly has the lead on speed, currently... but soon nearly everywhere will claim superfast. It's the uplink speed that matters most for business, not how fast little Jonny can download from Pirate Bay... a document aimed at business and policy makers might have usefully shown an understanding of that...]
* Build new digital and technological infrastructure, but avoid proprietary IT systems and supplier lock-ins. [The city doesn't have a great track record on big IT, or on beating open source into a workable shape for big projects, but we can hope...]
* Deliver online personalised Council services, and promote the use of these to ordinary people. [And save lots of money, theoretically, if absolutely everyone can be persuaded to use them... not a great hope of that in a city with such intractably high levels of functional illiteracy...]
* Boost digital skills among the young unemployed, perhaps offer “affordable connectivity”. [Sounds good... but why only the young? Surely the logical choice for boosting employment would be to offer low-cost net access to redundant 40+ people who have a track record and some skills?]
* Make available the “large scale data” being gathered by the public sector…
* …but make the data available as a “commodity that can be traded” in “new information marketplaces” which are “competitive”. [The taxpayers already paid for it, but they ain't going to get it for free...]
* “Local people and businesses [will use big data] to co-create customer facing services and applications [and so] improve their own productivity as well as grow new business.” [Businesses will commercially licence the public sector's big data and build big shiny digital stuff on it, and then the crowdserfing of ordinary employees or users of the services will "fill in the gaps" for free...]
* Provide data access “across silos” [no idea what they mean by "silos" — Council departments? Different public sector bodies?] and this will drive both public and private sector demand for sophisticated use of data. [Causing overworked public sector IT staff to groan at being heaped with more difficult and time-consuming stuff that has uncertain usefulness...]
* Address lack of small business access to public sector procurement. [Create a nice eco-system of small digital firms buying the Council's data licences, which will be more profitable than doing mega-deals with hard-bargaining corporations, and will be less likely to worry data-protection authorities...].
* A Development Fund aimed at [data] entrepreneurs and business. [Offer taxpayer-funded sweeteners to create the initial eco-system of small digital data firms...].
No mention of data-cleaning and auditing, data gaps or time-lags, a citizen’s ownership of their own data, privacy problems arising from data-set merging, how to make complex infographics understandable to ordinary people, or the basic problem of official data — that it’s often simply not collected and filtered in a manner which accurately “fits” the real world. It’s possible that solving some of these problems in a robust manner might also provide the city with viable know-how that could be sold.
But the kicker that some may have missed is that public sector data is not going to be free and open in Birmingham, but looks likely to be a commercial commodity to be sold to the highest bidder. Possibly on exclusive licences, preventing others from using it. That may bring a relatively tiny amount of annual income for the Council, but it’s unlikely to be good for the long-term growth of a vigorous infrastructure of digital firms.