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Three Days in Yorkshire

It’s easy to look beyond the local environment, and to assume that ‘everything’ is happening somewhere else

Unusually for me, I’ve found myself at reasonably local events over the past few days. Leeds last Wednesday to hear people discuss big data, York last Friday to talk about open data, and Hull today to check out the city’s impressive new work space.

It’s easy to look beyond the local environment, and to assume that ‘everything’ is happening somewhere else. The UK’s events are ‘all’ in London, along with ‘all’ the bright people. ‘Nothing’ interesting in tech happens outside the Valley. It’s easy, but it’s wrong.

Despite the shocking lack of the pizza I’ve come to expect at such events, the Leeds Data Thing gathering last week demonstrated just as much buzz as a similar gathering in London or San Francisco. The C4DI desk I’m typing from in Hull today is just as good as the co-working spaces I’ve used in the UK, in mainland Europe, and across the US. And the broadband and the views are both much better here.

One interesting presentation in Leeds came from local agency Bloom. The speakers talked about the ways in which they “use big data to drive innovation for clients,” with a focus on extracting insight from streams of social networking data. As an example, the Bloom team had analysed twitter traffic associated with the global Big Data Week events earlier this year. With events in 27 cities, Leeds appeared to rank fourth, behind London, Madrid and Barcelona. San Francisco did not appear to rank highly, which is surprising. I wonder if different neighbourhoods and suburbs were being identified as somewhere else, lowering the score?

The evening closed with a presentation from Tim Straughan of Leeds & Partners. He presented the city’s bold plans for technology-empowered growth, targeting verticals such as health care, digital industries and the financial sector as the basis upon which further growth might build. The vision was broad, and the ambition was impressive. Talk of a ‘Big Data Institute’ bothered me quite a bit, though. I still remember the explosion of science centres across the UK on the back of Lottery funding from the Millennium Commission. Each science centre, in itself, was impressive, worthy, educational, fun, welcome… and sustainable. But no one — it appeared — had considered the implications of building lots of them. Glasgow got one, for example. So did Irvine, just a short drive away. The market couldn’t sustain two. Rotherham in South Yorkshire got one. So did Doncaster, just a short drive away. The market couldn’t sustain two. More Millennium science centres have shut in the decade since they launched than are still open today. That’s not good for any of us. We’re in danger of going there again with all these bold civic claims around (big) data institutes or centres. I’m aware of several, in the UK and elsewhere. They all appear to be calculating their prospects for growth and sustainability on the basis of having no competition, which is clearly nonsense. There’s a need to raise awareness, to nurture community, and to grow skills. There’s far less need for a plethora of ‘global centres’ of innovation, knowledge, and leadership, funded by local governments which are failing to take a really informed look at the competitive landscape they believe they’ll dominate. Good work can — and will — be done in Leeds by good people. But the same is true in a lot of other places, too.

Here in Hull, today’s opening of the C4DI beta is part of a longer term plan that will see a cluster of digital industries growing up in redeveloped land at the confluence of the rivers Hull and Humber. An apparently healthy mix of public and private funding, guided by an ambition that seeks to push the region forward without the unrealistic expectation that it will dominate the world just because some local plan says so…

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Paul Miller works at the interface between the worlds of Cloud Computing and the Semantic Web, providing the insights that enable you to exploit the next wave as we approach the World Wide Database.

He blogs at www.cloudofdata.com.