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How Milton Keynes used artificial intelligence to better engage with its citizens

By David Donnerer on 4 December 2018

The relationship between a city´s decision makers and citizens is of mutual importance. For local authorities, it is hence crucial to take the pulse of public opinion and act on it. Town hall meetings, surveys or consultations are only some of the many possibilities for this exercise.

Recently, the Energy Cities member Milton Keynes ran a pilot project that used a different approach. Thanks to the artificial intelligence (AI) tool “Citibeats”, developed by the Barcelona-based startup Social Coin, Milton Keynes was able to better understand and address the day-to-day needs and priorities of its people.

UK’s urban hub for innovation and experimentation

Milton Keynes, located a half hour train-ride from London, is unlike any other English city. Built in 1967, it is a young city of only 50 years. Despite its youth, it has already established itself as the hub for innovation and experimentation in the UK. It is a first-mover in adopting new technologies: self-driving pods roam its streets, robots deliver packages to its residents and its universities and startups are leading the next industry revolution, “Industry 4.0”. Moving into the field of AI was therefore the logical next step in Milton Keynes’ evolution.

Using AI to make sense of social media conversations

But how did the “Citibeats” AI tool help Milton Keynes in better engaging with its citizens? As a computer scientist at the Knowledge Media Institute, which is the data science research and development lab of the Open University in Milton Keynes, Alessio Antonini , experienced it first-hand. He ran the pilot project in partnership with Social Coin during February and March 2018. MK:Smart, the £ 70 million flagship smart city project of Milton Keynes Council, commissioned the month-long pilot.

The main idea of the Citibeats AI tool is that it can discover, categorize and synthesize people’s public opinions on social media related to different topics and the city itself. It enables you to make sense and stay on track of the rapidly moving conversations in the social media ecosystem”, explains Antonini. It took him only half a day and some superficial knowledge of the social network Twitter to set up the tool. Over the course of the pilot, Citibeats analyzed thousands of tweets published in Milton Keynes and provided regular reports that were subsequently discussed in the Council.

Feeling the “pulse” of the public

For Alessio Antonini, the Citibeats tool supported city’s decision-makers in several ways. It had an information function, as it could gather insights on emerging issues in Milton Keynes that the Council was not even aware of. “Thereby, the Council was able to better understand the public discourse in the city and feel how the pulse of the public is changing. The Council could also discover grassroots events organized by its citizens, which would have been otherwise under the radar. This is crucial for decision-makers: How can you support your citizens, if you don’t know what they are doing on the ground?”, wonders Antonini. As the Council found out that many sport groups in Milton Keynes were actually the main users of the city’s parks, it reacted by investing into better sport facilities in the parks.

Understanding what really matters in a city

A second key function of the Citibeats tool was its ability to assess which topics were really relevant for Milton Keynes’ citizens, and how this contrasted the current political agenda of the Council. The AI could weigh the different topics monitored in a twofold manner: how often a topic was mentioned on Twitter, and how people expressed themselves about it (in a positive, negative or neutral tone). This enabled the Council to then adjust its own agenda and tailor it more to the needs and priorities of its people. Furthermore, Citibeats allowed the city’s decision-makers to visualize and better comprehend how different local actors reacted to daily events, and what response they expected from the Council.

According to Antonini, despite its effectiveness in deciphering citizen conversations on social media, the Citibeats AI tool still has an important limitation. “There are important issues that people don’t discuss on social media at all, such as health for example. In this case, you need other sources of information, like not-for-profit organizations that directly work on health issues. Decision-makers cannot rely on an AI for everything. They also need to work with organizations that engage directly with people in order to get the full picture of what is happening in their city”. In Antonini’s view, combining an AI like Citibeats with real-life outreach provides policymakers with the required information, which then allows them to act on it. He sees this kind of application as the right way to use AI for making better policy decisions in a city.

New AI projects in Milton Keynes on the horizon

This pilot project was just the first step in Milton Keynes’ AI-based policies. The city is soon expecting to test a new, improved version of the Citibeats AI tool from Social Coin. Furthermore, Milton Keynes is keen to apply AI in its urban planning system, as part of a broader initiative in digitizing local government services. By 2019, the AI application could process and validate on its own so-called permitted development applications from citizens, which are minor housing extensions and conversions that don’t require a specific planning permission from the local authority.

Read more:
Artificial Intelligence – the next frontier for the local energy transition
New EU high-level expert group on artificial intelligence
More actions from Milton Keynes can be found in our best practice database

©photo: www.mkfm.com - citibeats.net

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