Smart councils

Cities are a wealth of data. From buildings to bins, trees and parks, streets and buses, business and leisure, there is a continuous stream of information being generated in a multitude of places and formats, all within a concentrated area.

With 340,000 people living in the new Belfast council area and an urban area of around 600,000 (with one-third of the daytime population travelling from elsewhere), Belfast is one city well-placed to benefit from responsive and connective data.

Just as electricity and transport systems transformed the way that we move through the city, connectivity through data can deliver more efficient services and a greater sense of citizen engagement with the local community.

The Council publishes a small number of open data sets on their webpages. We’ve taken one such dataset – a survey of Belfast’s trees – and produced the map below to show how open data can be applied in a straight-forward to local matters, even with a relatively small and non-contentious concept.

Because the dataset published by the Council is in an open and re-useable format (and with an open licence) we’ve been able to build a map showing the locations of street trees in the city (you can also use the layers selector to find trees in municipal parks), and it’s also been carefully constructed with more information on tree species, age and size. Though the data is kept for the purpose of the parks department’s own use, the information can be useful for a number of purposes: residents can report problems with specific trees to the council, see the biodiversity of nearby trees, find out where the rarest trees are and see where the “urban forest” is thinner.*

Numbers of street and park trees in Belfast City Council area

Some observations as the results of an analysis of the tree data – most of Belfast’s street trees are lime (linden), while maple (acer) is the most popular park tree, and there is a greater variety of trees in the parks too, including one handkerchief tree, four tree of heavens and six tulip trees (you can find specific species on the dataset and map). Also, I’d also though that the famed Cyprus Avenue – of the Van Morrison song – was named after the cypress tree, but this is a bit of a misnomer as the pine trees on the street are actually of a different conifer genus. Thanks, open data!

What about other open city data?

It’s not just data from city services that can be made open. Other information, such as council spending, health data, housing and public safety information are directly relevant to a city’s infrastructure and development. And data other than that held by the local council is just as important – a large number of public and private bodies collect information relating to the city area that is essential to a well-connected city.

Philadelphia is one U.S. city that is leading the way in making city data open, from many sources including the city’s own. The Pennsylvania Department of Transport has published details of (reported) road traffic crash incidents on the OpenPhilly portal – in turn citizens have been able to map where bicycle crashes are most likely to happen. This helps cyclists know where danger points are and to find safer routes, as well as helping city planners and the Penn DoT itself in designing safer streets and cycling infrastructure. It’s a smart use of data that lets smart cities move forward.

Looking at other areas in Northern Ireland, the Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon, Mid-Ulster, and Lisburn and Castlereagh council areas are projected to see their populations increase by 20-25% by 2037. By investing in information infrastructure cities can improve their response to citizens’ needs, accessibility to services, and ultimately the quality of life of their residents. Smart cities connect citizens and councils through data and digital services. With the increase in local government power and responsibility for community planning, economic development and urban regeneration, council departments will soon find increased benefit from using data to inform and monitor progress.


* A caveat to the tree dataset: this was collected prior to the larger Belfast council area in 2015, so areas such as Dunmurry and Castlereagh aren’t included in the surveyed areas. Also, not all trees are necessarily included so some streets may appear empty despite being tree-lined.

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