Digital Twins & Decision-Making: Leeds City Council waves the flag for better Data Access

Last Week

For the past couple of weeks we have been exploring Digital Twins that are informed by people and centred around human behaviour. But what do you do if you have a lot of impersonal data that you need to use to help people?

This Week

Stephen Blackburn, Data and Innovation Manager at Leeds City Council, has been working in the world of Open Data for 8 years. This week he sits down with our CEO David McKee to talk about what a Digital Twin means for a city council, and the challenges they face when trying to develop a data platform in a public organisation that relies on private organisations releasing their data.


To start, what would your definition of a Digital Twin be?

I think of a digital twin as a digital version of the real world, whether that be a digital version of a building, a road network, water, electricity, or a whole city. The idea is that you could easily make changes in the digital world and see the impact of those changes before you invest any real time, effort, and money in the real world.

Take a road network for example: If we need to block a road off or we need to do some road works, by running a simulation or a model, we can answer the questions: Where would those cars go? What would impact on journey times? What would impact on air quality in different areas? Does that clog up the area somewhere else that could create a problem downstream somewhere? And you might decide to change what you do based on that model.

In the past we may have  put a sign out on a road to advise that the road would be closed on certain days and times  and hope that it doesn’t impact too much.  The Digital Twin would provide us with much more insight before we make any changes. Transport Planning already do a lot of this kind of modelling however a Digital Twin, powered by good quality, up to date data could enable us to work much smarter.

Slingshot’s 3D model of Leeds

From a City Council, or local authority, perspective what would you say are the key things that would would look for in a Digital Twin solution?

I would say we that in particular we are looking for solutions relating to building and asset management, road and transport planning, and the environment. Leeds City Council is a huge organisation, so we deliver a huge number of services from looking after vulnerable people to emptying dustbins and lots of between.  As long as we have access to the data, there’s clearly lots of opportunities where a Digital Twin solution could support us.

Given the size of the local authority as an organisation, and the complexities of departments working together, what would you say are some of the key challenges of deploying digital twin solutions within a public body?

This isn’t just about Digital Twins. This is about us better understanding what is going on in the city and enabling us to make better decisions. The key challenge however, is accessing data:

Challenge 1: Data is unrefined oil

I’ve been working in the world of Open Data for nearly 8 years, and there was there was a big government push at the time hailing open data as “new oil”.  The problem with exploiting this “new” resource, is that it’s often unrefined, unusable, and inaccessible. To enable us, and others, to interpret it better and reuse it more readily, it’s important that it’s accessible and in a format that is understandable and is interoperable with other datasets.


Challenge 2: The City Jigsaw of Segregated Services

I have been at the council for over 15 years and within that time the council has become smaller in size, but bigger in influence.  The council is a  piece in a larger city jigsaw that is made up of a multitude of contributors and active players.

There were services, 15 years ago, that Councils would manage internally. Over the years, some of these services are now commissioned and delivered by others.   This means that the data that we would have collected in the past is now being collected by somebody else, which we may or may not have access to.


Challenge 3: Private Sector is causing Knowledge Holes

If we’re wanting to understand our city better and would like to work towards having a Digital Twin of the city, we need information from right across the city. Building management data that is being collected by private landlords and companies needs to be opened up and accessible otherwise we’ll have holes in our city Digital Twin.

For example, if we wanted to know how much CO2 the city is emitting, we could probably access data from the larger organisations such as the NHS or universities however, there’d still be the majority or buildings and organisations that we wouldn’t have any knowledge of. If we had access to that data, it would help us understand the city better and assist with our decision making.


You have mentioned the challenge of open data with private sectors. Do you see many conflicts between open data, commercial data, and personal data?

Of course. The council is a public organisation and quite rightly, over the years we have become increasingly open and transparent, for example in responding to Freedom of Information requests (FOIs). I remember when I first started working at the council that I was initially surprised that we would need to begin responding to requests for data and information. Of course we are a public organisation however, and it’s quite right that we’re accountable to taxpayers and for us to be as open and transparent as we can possibly be.

We of course don’t publish personal or commercially sensitive data however we wave the flag of: If we can publish it, then we should be publishing it.

Over the last 6 years, our Data Mill North website has been a great platform for us to publish our data and promote the open data movement more widely. We’re now looking at how we can build on this and have just kicked off some discovery work that will focus on what our next generation data platform should look like and how we can manage real time data better, how we visualise that data and how it can assist managers in making data-led decisions.

Our focus for the Data Mill has always been to encourage other organisations across the city and region to publish their data so that we have a better view of the city as a whole.  A complete jigsaw if you like. It’s often more difficult to encourage private and 3rd sector organisations to open up their data however I believe things are slowly changing as it becomes more evident that we can all benefit by becoming more open and transparent.

It’s often difficult to encourage people to publish their data and if they do, just as hard to keep on top of it to ensure it’s updated on time. For Digital Twins to work, we really need to focus on how we collect and manage real time data that can be compared against baselined historical data so that we’re able to make decisions based on what is going on right now. Not what happened 12 months ago.

How do you see Digital Twins and smart cities working together?

Improved Collaboration

A city is an ecosystem. Often in organizations like the council we have different departments and services and it’s sometimes difficult to see the bigger picture. What we’re doing with Smart Leeds, our smart cities programme, is getting people working closer together and collaborating. One of the projects that we’re working on is the GovTech Catalyst Challenge where we’re  looking at how Internet of Things devices in the home can not only help improve the management of  our social housing stock , but also lead to the improved the health and wellbeing of our tenants.  Through this project we’re bringing teams together from Public Health, Adult Social Care and Housing to work with a variety of tech companies – true collaboration!

Improved Housing

Smart Cities is about us better utilising the data that we collect and working more laterally than we have done previously. An example of this is our Housing of the Future Programme, (of which GovTech Catalyst is a part), which is looking at the house/flat as a whole, including the people who live there. The questions we are asking, and looking to solve in this programme are:

  • How do we better manage a house or flat within an apartment block?
  • How do we better manage the whole block? (e.g. lift maintenance, waste management, security etc.)
  • How do we improve the lives of our tenants within their home?
  • How do we enable older people to live more independently in their own homes for longer?

We’ll be working on a number of projects where we will focus on a particular tower block or a number of blocks and use them as our “test beds”.  We will trial different technologies to better understand what works and what doesn’t, with a view to wider deployment in the future.


Improved Collation of Sources

The Digital Twin data platform that we are looking for is one that allows better data management in two ways:

Better Integration of Data Sources

We want a digital platform that can pull real-time data from a variety of different sources and be presented in ways that enables data-led decisions to be made by council services and provides information and insight.

We are looking to roll out a LoRa Wan Network which will allow us to collect data from IoT devices in real-time – something we’ve not  been able to do before.  We have several air quality stations in the city however these are at fixed locations and they may not tell us the whole story. New air quality sensors are more portable and can provide real time data that could feed into our data platform to help inform our understanding.

Better Interoperability

Our future data platform not only needs to be able to collate data from multiple sources but it must be interoperable with other software solutions so that various council services can access and reuse the data to help them deliver their services.

There are numerous service areas within the council that all have their own different processes, data and software. Having a Digital Twin solution that connects this data together enables all these areas to use that platform to get a better understanding of what is happening in the ‘real world’ and to make more accurate decisions.  From a citizen perspective, it might be that we use the combined data to provide real time messages.  For example, to provide information on air quality or road closures to help people make informed choices before they set out.


Improved Connectivity

Our Smart Cities approach is focusing on to laying solid foundations that will facilitate all the good stuff. These foundations are:

World-class connectivity

We need the best connectivity not only to deliver the best services but also to manage and collect data in better ways. This includes Ultrafast Fibre Broadband that we’ll be rolling out to nearly 1500 council buildings and schools. It also includes the LoRaWan roll out, free council Wi-Fi, and in the future, 5G. There are lots of different connectivity options and I think it’s important to recognise that it’s not a one size fits all. It’s about having a suite of options.

Improving people’s Digital Skills and Capability

The 100% Digital Leeds programme is focused improving the digital skills of Leeds’ citizens to help them get the most out of being online, whether that be getting the best online deals or helping them to find jobs.  Technology is often moving faster than us all however, and it’s important that we all brush up on our own skills to ensure we’re able to able to continue to carry out our roles as efficiently as we can and to make best use of the technology that’s available to us. Whilst collecting more real time data offers us more opportunities, it’s important that we have a workforce who have the skills to interpret and act upon it.

Data and analytics

As we’ve focused on already, data is the key to what we want to do in terms of our ambitions for delivering our future services.  It’s important that we take advantage of the opportunities that new technology offers in respect of collecting data.  It’s equally important however that we interpret the data in the right way, that we take into account any data governance and ethical considerations and that we ultimately use it in ways that result in improved services for us all.


Improved Living Environments via Company Collaboration

Collaboration underpins everything that we do and is necessary to utilise Digital Twins and Smart City solutions. I always refer to the Smart Leeds programme as a City Council-led programme rather than simply a Council one. We need organisations, large and small, to sign up to what we want to achieve as a City as they are a crucial piece of that city jigsaw. If we all put something in, we will all get something out.

The priority areas for the Smart Leeds program are:  

  • Health and Wellbeing: We’ve a large big health sector in Leeds working on lots on innovative solutions including Leeds Care Record, Helm, and CareView.
  • Climate Emergency: Last year, Leeds declared a climate emergency to be Carbon Neutral by 2030, so not far away and lots to do.  How can we use technology to help us meet our target?
  • Housing standards: Primarily looking at our own council houses and how can we ensure that our council houses are the best standard so our tenants are living in a good quality accommodation.
  • Travel and Transport: From better signalling to the promotion of sustainable transport.  How can technology help us deliver a better transport experience and reduce everyone’s reliance on their cars?

What is really good to see is how competing digital and tech companies in Leeds often collaborate. Whilst they may work in the same sector, they often specialise in slightly different areas and therefore by working together, everyone benefits.


Improved City Productivity

It’s about promoting the increasingly cheap technology that’s available that out there that enables us to manage services better, make changes and put things right before they become a big problem, one of these issues being mass transportation in Leeds.

Leeds is currently in discussions to look at having a tram network or something similar that will centre in Leeds and extend  beyond the city boundaries into West Yorkshire to absence of a mass transit solution.  Over the next 20 years, Leeds City Centre is expected to double in size meaning more people living here, commuting here and visiting here. It’s important therefore that we have the best highways and the transport infrastructure to be able to cope with that increase and assist with improving the productivity of the city and wider region.

Smart City inventions also has a role to play in this area. The University of Leeds has done some great research in the Self Repairing Cities Robotic Challenge for example where they’re looking at creating robots that crawl through drains and the pipes looking for cracks and then fix those cracks before they become a problem. That means you don’t need to dig the road up and you don’t need to close the road off to fix the problem. That means you’re not impacting on people getting to work, and on the productivity of the city.


To end with, what would be your one ask from the public sector and/or the private sector? If you could have anything in the world that they would do for you and do it tomorrow what would that be?

Can we all collaborate more closely?

We are making huge steps towards that already, but that collaboration should start to involve sharing our data. It’s not about making all of this data open but making it available and having that conversation about how we do that.

Whether it be a Digital Twin or council services this is all about the data: Having access to that data, being able to interpret it, being able to share it with the right people and then we can deliver new services, better services and targeted services to the right people. We will reduce costs as a result and improve services that we can all access. It’s all about the data.