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Thinking technology and organisation together

Urban data space

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In conversation with Dr Alanus von Radecki, Managing Director of the Data Competence Centre Cities and Regions (DKSR)

Dr Alanus von Radecki explains potentials and requirements of municipal data strategies.© DKSR

Dr Alanus von Radecki explains potentials and requirements of municipal data strategies.© DKSR

Dr von Radecki, the DKSR has been around for about two years - why is that?

The idea developed out of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft's "Morgenstadt Initiative", which I led for several years. This is a network of institutes, municipalities and companies to think ahead to the "City of the Future". Within this framework, we have experienced that the development and dissemination of innovative solutions in cities is progressing far too slowly. Yet, as we know, we urgently need to transform cities in order to achieve the energy and transport transition and make necessary climate adaptations. This is the core challenge, so to speak. There are many good approaches, pilot projects, real laboratories, etc., and massive investments are being made. And massive investments are being made. But the multiplication and scaling of the solutions takes far too long or does not happen at all.

And one hurdle is the issue of data?

Exactly. A major reason for the situation described is that data use and management are not properly addressed on a broad level. On the one hand, there is a lack of basics, such as knowledge and technological standards, and on the other hand, there is a lack of an adequate organisation that enables the respective municipality to concretely access data and use it in a value-added way without being dependent on third parties. And it is precisely these two aspects that we have brought together with DKSR. Our conviction is that it is neither a purely technical nor a purely organisational problem. Rather, you have to think both together. Our solution to this is an open-source data platform that we make available to municipalities and municipal enterprises on a contract basis. We have deliberately decided against keeping our codes under lock and key and act openly and purely as a service provider. This is unique in this form. The shareholder constellation is also exciting: the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft with its close ties to the federal and state governments is represented, as well as Deutsche Telekom and two medium-sized software companies.

What has the DKSR achieved so far?

The market for open source data platforms is still very small. But in this manageable environment, we are the market leader. We have achieved this in the two years of our existence so far. We have developed the first use cases with municipalities, whose code we have published and made available: So we have provided the proof of concept. As of the beginning of 2023, we have around 20 municipal partners. We are currently igniting the next stage, working on solutions with Prague, Porto and Budapest, among others. We are moving on a European level.

The potential of municipal data strategies is therefore great. But how can cities tap into this treasure trove of data?

At our core, we bring data-based technology to cities. However, for this to work, our clients need to be connectable. This means that in preparation, they often have to build up competencies to deal with data. Incidentally, this is not necessarily a technical issue, but also and especially a structural, organisational, legal and financial one. Here we provide advisory support on data strategies. This includes answers to questions like: What data do you have at all? What data can we access and how? Where is this data located and how do we get it out of the silos? Who is currently responsible for it? Which systems need to communicate with each other? It's about the urban data space, which many responsible people still don't have on their radar.

And when will it become concrete?

As quickly as possible. In the second step, we already try to identify use cases in order to be able to play through and demonstrate the matter in practice. We rarely have a case where a municipality comes to us and says: "We'd like to have 'everything with sauce'". For Berliner Stadtreinigung we did a comprehensive analysis and subsequently the transfer, but that was an exception. Instead of a big complete package, we usually offer small "discovery packages", as we call them. Here, we provide a platform with a dashboard for several months and perhaps do a small inventory of the organisation in parallel.

Can you give some example cases?

For the city of Mainz, we have been working on the identification of parking violations at e-charging stations. We access the real-time data from the charging stations and parking sensors, an algorithm is used - and the employees of the public order office can be informed via smartphone app if something is incorrect. In Cologne, we have built a basis for better decisions in scooter sharing: Dispatchers can see on the map where the service is hardly used and can react accordingly. They place scooters or even rental bikes where demand is greater. In Freiburg, to give a third example, we now understand in real time where many people are cycling. This year, it will be a matter of drilling the thicker boards for us. By that I mean, among other things, the analysis of energy data for entire neighbourhoods or the creation of flood forecasts.

Rivers or traffic know no city boundaries. How does inter-municipal cooperation work at data level?

Most of the time it is difficult for municipalities to put their own data into a common database. We propose separate platforms that are allowed to communicate with each other. Because cities are not in such competition as companies, the willingness to share results with each other is gratifyingly high. Within the framework of our Urban Data Community, we make the codes available, accompanied by implementation-supporting formats. Let's take the example of Freiburg: every city could apply the real-time recording of cycling traffic as quickly as possible.

How big are the reservations against such data management - keyword data sovereignty?

From my point of view, this term is mainly used as an empty phrase in city administrations. Because if you ask what exactly the other party means by it, it usually becomes very thin. But data sovereignty can create real added value by making data accessible that otherwise cannot be used. We simply have a competence gap in this area. Ultimately, it is also a question of cost: technically, it is no problem to attach digital contracts with desired conditions to data records and thus retain full sovereignty over the data. But this is somewhat more expensive than doing without such a tool. Showing why this investment is worthwhile is also one of our tasks.

Finally, a question about a buzzword: How realistic is the implementation of the digital twin for cities?

If one understands the digital twin as a faithful digital image of reality, it will probably never exist for cities. Costs and benefits would not be in proportion and some processes can (fortunately!) probably never be simulated entirely algorithmically. The realistic compromise is a simplified 3D image of a city into which various data are integrated. From our perspective, such a system becomes interesting when it can be used for simulations. For example: How do emissions change when certain interventions are made? Exciting pilot projects are currently being developed for this.

Thank you very much for the interesting conversation.


is Head of the Data Competence Centre Cities and Regions DKSR. He has been working for the implementation of sustainable innovations in cities and municipalities for more than twelve years and has already advised cities such as Stockholm, Manchester, Prague and Munich. Previously, he led the team of the Fraunhofer Morgenstadt Initiative, among others.