Insightful places: giving meaning to data


We can all be charged with shying away from ‘data.’ As planners, developers, council officers and consumers, we all know that there are vast possibilities for data and that great leaps are being made in the technology that collects it beneath our very noses. Yet many of us do not understand what data is being collected, and why, nor how it can be used to better the places in which we live. That’s why Future Councils was delighted when Commonplace suggested an event exploring just that: how can we use data to create more insightful places?

For our first speaker, Andrew Collinge of the Greater London Authority, London and the wider country is still a long way from achieving its potential for insightful places. The steps taken in recent years towards open data have been transformative. The use of Oyster cards in London now means that we can better understand how transport networks are used and the London Datastore, for which Andrew is responsible, has a plethora of information at its fingertips. Despite this we are at, what Andrew calls, “a moment of coordination failure” where we have opportunities but not necessarily direction. Whilst accumulating more data of the same sort would be welcome, it would only be a mild improvement in the status quo.

For London, and indeed the wider country, to leap ahead Andrew called for more deterministic leadership and suggested that there are some questions that need answers. For example, how do we make open data city data? What is commercial data, what is public data and what is citizen data? And, how do we ensure that data is looked after properly?

Andrew also raised the issue that data is still siloed by each local authority in London. Citizens do not respect London borough boundaries when they choose a school or a GP surgery but authorities do. Each London borough restricts its data collection to within its individual boundaries, so the resulting data can be misleading and is far less useful than it could be.

Our second speaker Tom Cardis, Head of Planning at the Old Oak and Park Royal Development Corporation, spoke about how his team is using data to develop the Old Oak and Park Royal site in west London. Particularly, how they plan to futureproof it against the developments in data and technology to come. The Old Oak and Park Royal scheme is set to become one of the biggest in the country and will house 55,000 people as well as a train station to rival Waterloo. One of the main challenges with a development of such a large scale is the time it takes to build it out, in this case 30 years. The development corporation is already thinking about how it can create a smart space. Should there be lampposts that measure air quality, as in Barcelona, or could CCTV be replaced with some form of social media monitoring. But most interesting are the plans for the versatility of place, the plans for the unknown technologies and data that haven’t been developed yet. The corporation is looking at using road layouts that are flexible and can be moved, planning for a world in which autonomous cars are the norm, and working with Visa and Mastercard to identify the location of the town centre through spending patterns.

The final speaker of the evening, U+I’s Creative Director Martyn Evans, looked towards property developers and the work that they could be doing to create truly insightful places. Martyn was critical of his industry’s approach so far. As he noted, property developers have little incentive to make great places that are influenced by data from local people when there is so much money to be made without doing it. He called for planners to stand up to developers and push them to improve their market research, collect local data and redefine meaningful consultation.

During the event, the speakers examined the idea of an insightful place at different layers: Andrew spoke about the potential for data to improve public services, Tom discussed place making and using data to futureproof a development and Martyn looked to the roles of the individual property developers themselves to seek and use data. There is clearly much to be done to create truly insightful places but it is encouraging that conversations are happening and that expertise is available. For Future Councils the task remains to look overseas and to see how data is being utilised to improve places and the way we live.

Commonplace is a consultation and engagement platform working with developers and local authorities to create better places. For more information, please visit

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