London’s TfL and Toronto’s Google Sidewalk Lab both show that cities need better ways of managing data

Clouds over Toronto. Image: Getty.

Cities are now fuelled by data. They depend on it as much as they depend on air or petrol. We see this in our daily lives, whether using Google Maps to get from place to place counting our steps with a Fitbit, or checking out a restaurant review.

But how this data is to be managed and governed is becoming ever more fraught and controversial. There is a continuing reaction against the way in which the Facebook’s and others harvest our data without our knowledge or consent, and Mark Zuckerberg has signalled that even he thinks this model is unlikely to last. But there’s also growing recognition just how much we could benefit from collecting, curating and linking data in new ways.

The transport sector highlights the dilemmas. Ten years ago, London started opening up transport data in ways that allowed hundreds of apps to appear helping us to plan our journeys much more efficiently. Yet when Transport for London (TfL) recently announced that it was using Wi-Fi to track passenger journeys across the underground with the aim of improving planning, many reacted negatively, fearing loss of privacy.

So who should own this kind of data and how should the users of this data be held to account?

An interesting example of what not to do has been happening across the Atlantic in Toronto. In 2017 Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced an exciting partnership with Google’s Sidewalk Labs to create the world’s smartest city on the shores of Lake Ontario, using data to manage transport, energy and just about anything else. Google rushed in full of enthusiasm and clever technological ideas.

But last year brought a mounting backlash. The public turned out to be unconvinced that they would benefit. It was clear there was a massive accountability gap. Google belatedly tried to put this right and last year appointed Ann Cavoukian, a former privacy commissioner of Ontario, as an adviser. Late last year she and others resigned, unconvinced that the plans would stop data being misused. Many believe the project is now doomed.

So how could we get this right? I believe the answer lies in creating new institutions – let’s call them “data trusts” – which can create and organise data on our behalf, maximising the public benefit but also ensuring that our privacy is protected.


The shape these will take will vary. So, for example, as drones become much more a part of the daily life of cities, doing shopping deliveries or moving medical supplies to a hospital, it’ll be vital to pool data about where they are and we will need some organisation to do that, and to account for the judgements they make. In healthcare there are huge gains to be achieved from linking data about our health and genetic makeup with socioeconomic data and treatment records. But we lack any institutions which are quite trusted to be guardians of this data, and balancing the public interest in mining it with the interests of privacy.

Jobs are another example. Nesta has been developing new tools which look at millions of job advertisements to analyse what skills are being looked for, and make forecast about what jobs are likely to grow and shrink in order to provide more useful guides to everyone from teenagers deciding on their GCSEs or 50 year olds at risk of seeing their job automated.

In one future, this sort of work will be controlled by private companies like LinkedIn. But my guess is we will soon see the need to create public guardians of this data – enabling competitive markets in apps (as has happened with transport data) but ensuring accountability and high technical standards.

All of these are examples of how the Fourth Industrial Revolution is creating new stresses and strains and forcing us to think about new institutions to fill the gaps. Something very similar happened after the first Industrial Revolution. Millions moved into cities like London and Manchester which became pretty unpleasant places to be, full of ill health crime mistrust the misery. Then, in the second half of the 19th century, new institutions were invented to fill the gaps: providing sewers and public health, schools and libraries, insurance and credit, to ensure we got the benefits of the Industrial Revolution but without the costs.

The technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution are hurtling forward. The job of governing them well is only belated being addressed. Cities depend on data as they depend on air. But like air, data can become polluted and toxic. Data trusts will be one of the ways we can help cities to thrive in a data-driven age.

Geoff Mulgan is chief executive of the innovation charity Nesta.

 
 
 
 

What are Europe’s longest train journeys?

The Orient Express was a pretty long train. Image: Getty.

For reasons that aren’t clear even to me, a question popped into my head and refused to leave: what’s longer? Britain’s longest train joruney, or Germany’s?

On the one hand, Germany is quite a bit larger – its area is 70 per cent more than Great Britain’s. On the other hand, Great Britain is long, skinny island and Germany is much rounder – the distance from John O’ Groats to Lands End is over 1,400 km, but you never have walk over 1,000 km to cross Germany in any direction.

And it turns out these factors balance almost each other out. Britain’s longest train, the CrossCountry from Aberdeen in Scotland to Penzance in Cornwall, runs 785 miles or 1,263 km. Germany’s longest train, the IC 2216 from Offenburg in the Black Forest to Greifswald on the Baltic coast, is exactly 1,300 km. Germany wins by a tiny distance.

Except then I was hooked. What about the longest train in France? Spain? Italy?

So I did what anyone would do. I made a map.

The map above was all drawn with the Deutsche Bahn (Germany Railways) travel planning tool, which rather incredibly has nearly every railway in Europe. The data quality is better for some countries than others (the lines in France aren’t quite that straight in real life), and the measurements may be a bit off – it’s not always easy to find the length of a train service, especially when routes can vary over the year – but it gives us a good idea of what the routes look like.

Let’s start with the UK. The Aberdeen to Penzance route isn’t really for people who want to go all the way across the country. Instead, it’s a way to link together several railway lines and connect some medium-to-large cities that otherwise don’t have many direct services. “Cross-country” trains like these have existed for a century, but because they crossed multiple different company’s lines – and later, multiple British Rail regions – they tended to get ignored.

 

That’s why, when it privatised the railways, the government created a specific CrossCountry franchise so there was a company dedicated to these underused routes. If you want to get from Edinburgh to Leeds or Derby to Bristol, you’ll probably want a CrossCountry train.

The usual route is Edinburgh to Plymouth, but once a day they run an extra long one. Just one way though – there’s no Penzance to Aberdeen train. 

The longest train in Germany is weird – at 1,400 km, it’s substantially longer than the country itself. On the map, the reason is obvious – it takes a huge C shaped route. (It also doubles back on itself at one point in order to reach Stuttgart).

This route takes it down the Rhine, the biggest river in west Germany, and through the most densely populated patch of the country around Cologne and Dusseldorf known as the Ruhr. Germany’s second and third longest trains also have quite similar routes – they start and end in remote corners of the country, but all three have the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan area in the middle.

You’re not meant to take the IC 2216 all the way from north east to south west – there are much more direct options available. Instead, it’s for people who want to travel to these major cities. They could run two separate trains – say, Offenburg-Dusseldorf and Griefswald-Cologne – but making it a single route means passengers benefit from a bit more flexibility and helps DB use its rolling stock more effectively.

France’s longest train exists for a very good reason. Most of France’s high-speed lines radiate out from Paris, and it’s very hard to get around the country without going to the capital. Usually to get from Marseille on the Mediterranean to Nantes near the Atlantic, you’d need to take a TGV to Paris Gare de Lyon station, then get the Métro across the city to Gare Montparnasse.

Once a day though, this TGV avoids this faff by stopping in the suburb of Juvisy and turning around without going into the centre. This lets passengers travel direct between the coasts and reduces the traffic through Paris’s terminals in the rush hour. The exact length of this route isn’t clear, but Wikipedia says it’s about 1,130 km.

Spain’s longest train is very different. This is the Trenhotel sleeper service from Barcelona to Vigo, and it’s pretty fancy. This is a train for tourists and business travellers, with some quite luxurious sleeping cabins. But it is a regularly scheduled train run by the state operator Renfe, not a luxury charter, and it does appear in the timetables.

Being dry, hot and quite mountainous in its middle, most of Spain’s cities are on its coast (Madrid is the one major exception) and as a result the train passes through relatively few urban areas. (Zaragoza, Spain’s 5th largest city, is on the route, but after that the next biggest city is Burgos, its 35th largest,) This is partly why overnight trains work so well on the route – without many stops in the middle, most passengers can just sleep right through the journey, although there are occasional day time trains on that route too if you want to savour the view on that 1,314 km journey.

Finally, there’s Italy. This is another sleeper train, from Milan in the north to Syracuse on the island of Sicily. It goes via Rome and travels along the west coast of... wait, it’s a train to the island of Sicily? How, when there’s no bridge?

Well, this train takes a boat. I don’t really have anything else to add here. It’s just a train that they literally drive onto a ferry, sail across the water, and then drive off again at the other side. That’s pretty cool.

(As I was writing this, someone on Twitter got in touch to tell me the route will get even longer in September when the line to Palermo reopens. That should be exciting.)

So those are the longest trains in each country. But they aren’t the longest in Europe.

For one thing, there are some countries we haven’t looked at yet with very long trains. Sweden has some spectacular routes from its southern tip up into the Arctic north, and although the Donbass War appears to have cut Ukraine’s Uzhorod to Luhansk service short, even Uzhorod to Kharkiv is over 1,400 km. And then there are the international routes.

To encourage the Russian rich to take the train for their holiday, Russian Railways now run a luxury sleeper from Moscow to Nice, passing through France, Monaco, Italy, Austria, Czechia, Poland, Belarus and Russia. This monster line is 3,315 km long and stretches across most of the continent. That’s got to be the longest in Europe, right?

Nope. Incredibly, the longest train in Europe doesn’t actually cross a single border. Unsurprisingly, it’s in Russia, but it’s not the Trans-Siberian – the vast majority of that’s route is in Asia, not Europe. No, if you really want a long European train journey, head to Adler, just south of the Olympic host city Sochi. From there, you can catch a train up to Vorkuta on the edge of the Arctic Circle. The route zigzags a bit over its 89 hour, 4,200 km journey, but it always stays on the European side of the Ural mountains.

Bring a good book.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray often tweets about this kind of nonsense at @stejormur.


All maps courtesy of Deutsche Bahn.