#PersonalBeat – Alessio Antonini: It all starts with a question

Say what? That’s right. Through our collaboration with Dr. Alessio Antonini at MK Insight, of Knowledge Media Institute (KMI) at The Open University, we’ve been exploring how to go beyond ‘data for the sake of data’, and run smart city projects which result in action. The key is, it all starts with a question.

Both Alessio, and KMI, have been the ideal collaborators for us to test citizen-centric projects with meaning. Milton Keynes has established itself as one of the leading smart cities in the UK, and is becoming famous for having delivery robots, piloting self-driving pods circling it’s already famous roundabouts system. Alessio is a PhD computer scientist, specialised on civic technologies and crowdsourcing, previously technical lead of Europe’s WeGovNow platform and now leads research at MK Insight. We caught up on how citizens and cities can set up their smart cities initiatives, so it moves from ‘just data’ to meaningful impact.


“Citizen social media data is totally different from open data, or sensors data. What is there is actually their life”


What is MK Insight today, and where do you see it going?

Now, currently, MK Insight is designed to put all open data together to facilitate the exchange of data within the Council and with local organizations, so policies and decisions are based on data. It sounds reasonable, but this is a big change in the way of thinking everywhere!

In the near future, MK Insight will be open to citizens. It won’t be just ‘please use what is inside’. Since all useful analyses are based on questions, MK Insight will become a question answering system. We will receive questions from citizens – everyone can input questions – we will organize the questions, and that will drive the analysis that the platform responds to directly.


So data becomes useful when it responds to a direct citizen need. What kind of citizen needs do you imagine responding to?

We don’t need to imagine! We had experience within the MK Smart project, such as MK Insight Observatory and the Social Atlas used by citizens and local organizations; we collaborate with the Council and local  SMEs on a daily base to understand the problems they need answered. For example, SMEs who are considering launching a business in Milton Keynes need to know: are there talented people? What’s the infrastructure? What’s the regulation coming in the near future? Nowhere currently has this information. Answering these questions, we can help citizens, as well as help the city attract investment and talented people to build business here.


Milton Keynes is very advanced in this citizen-centric perspective. How has the city got here? What are they doing to stand out?

On the city level, think of Milton Keynes as a huge laboratory. We built a reputation because we took an experimental approach, worked on so many topics, and became a platform for other cities to build on. We are open, and we make things happen – and then other cities can use our infrastructure.


So your latest experiment has been to try out Citibeats. How does it fit in with your philosophy on smart cities?

Citibeats is very complimentary to our project – it is the part we are still missing, which is essential. Citizen social media data is totally different from open data, or sensors data. What is there is actually their life. People are not talking about ‘healthcare system parameters’ – they’re talking about their health problems, and their life!

The experience with Citibeats was good, very good actually. The tool is very simple, easy to manage, and you get feedback fast – it’s what you need. Here’s why I think Citibeats is important: the social media ecosystem is a mess. You cannot have an expert to understand what is going on, because things just move to fast. You are missing important things and you don’t even know what you are losing. I am not an expert, and we don’t need an expert: I spent half a day to set it up, and got the results during the next weeks. It was amazing!

In particular, it is very reliable and gives a fast insight. The Beats are the most important part, because there is no other way to understand what is going on using the real words of people. It opened a new window. We’re really looking forward to your future, we expect great things!


We’re grateful to MK Insight as a fantastic collaborator, for helping advance our perspective on what citizen-centric data means, and we look forward to continue exploring data with meaning, together.