Govlaunch Podcast

Christchurch, NZ uses data to engage the community through their in-house SmartView app

Episode Summary

Today, we’re learning about a great application developed by Christchurch’s Smart Cities Programme. The SmartView app, also known as “Christchurch in your pocket” allows users to find anything in their city - everything from a fruit tree to an electronic scooter. By cross-referencing several data sources and creating an in-house platform, they’ve linked residents to their city in an engaging and creative way.

Episode Notes

Michael Healy joins Olivia from Govlaunch to talk about Christchurch’s innovative SmartView platform, which is a web based app they have developed that pulls together data from a range of public and private organisations and displays it in a way that makes information easy for locals and visitors to access.

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Featured government: Christchurch, NZ

Episode guest: Michael Healy, Smart Cities Programme Manager at Christchurch City Council

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Episode Transcription

Lindsay: (00:05)

Welcome to the Govlaunch podcast. Govlaunch is the Wiki for local government innovation and on this podcast, we're sharing the stories of local government innovators and their efforts to build smarter governments. I'm Lindsay Pica-Alfano, co-founder of Govlaunch and your host. Today, we're learning about a great application developed by Christchurch's smart city program. The app, also known as 'Christchurch in your pocket,' allows users to find anything in their city. Everything from a fruit tree to an electric scooter. By cross-referencing several data sources and creating an in-house platform, they've linked residents to their city in an engaging and creative way. Now I'll turn it over to Olivia from our team and Michael from Christchurch to hear how this project came to be and where are the platforms that today.

Olivia: (00:55)

Hi, I'm Olivia from Govlaunch and I'm here with Michael Healy from Christchurch New Zealand. Michael, tell us a little bit about your role.

Michael: (01:03)

Hi, Olivia, thank you for having me along today. So I'm the program manager of the smart Christchurch program. First of all, where Christchurch? We're at the bottom of the world in the South Pacific and we're the second largest city in New Zealand with about 400,000 people. Um, I suppose thinking about the inception of our program, um, the earthquakes that happened here around 10 years ago, kind of really set the platform for the program. Um, while there's a lot of destruction of the loss of life, it also created a bit of a blank canvas. And so our program started in 2016 with just one person. And over the last few years, we've built it up to a team of four  working over a range of city problems and opportunities. And it's a very interesting role and covers a lot of different areas.

Olivia: (01:53)

Yeah. Great to hear that a little bit of good came out of something so tragic. Can you tell us a little bit more about Christchurch's smart city program? I know you mentioned it briefly, but we'd love to know what projects you're working on these days.

Michael: (02:07)

Yeah. So as I said, the program has been going on for around four and a half years and we started with a very much kind of technologically focused, you know, find a sensor, find a piece of tech and then try to find a use case. I suppose, over the years, we've tried to kind of lift our, um, our focus more to become more of an enabler. We didn't have to be the ones that come up with a solution. We just got to get the right people together, um, and give them the opportunity to come up with innovative solutions for city problems. And to add to that in the current COVID context, like a lot of, um, people in the innovation sector we've had to pivot, you know, support the response to COVID, but also I suppose, really think from a public perspective that we're public money in the right places and there's tangible kind of paybacks on that. Public perception now more than ever has become, uh, critical for smart cities programs.

Olivia: (03:01)

Absolutely. It's hard to avoid the COVID topic, local governments around the world. We're often tasked with a lot of, of the direct response work. So it definitely pivoted a lot of efforts quite quickly. Changing gears a bit I'd like to focus on how your team has generated a lot of buzz with your recent, innovative platform, SmartView. We'd love to learn more about it. Can you walk our audience through what exactly is SmartView and how it came to be?

Michael: (03:29)

Yeah, so, um, smartview is a web based app. That's optimized for mobile devices and it brings together a whole bunch of data sets from public and private organizations and kind of puts it into one easy place. Um, we like to call it Christchurch in your pocket. Um, so it started in 2017 when we took some data sets we had around nice or 10 and we put it together in the first version of SmartView, and there is a little bit of an ugly duckling truth to be told. And over the years we've added in the data sets and we've worked on the, kind of the visual appeal of the platform and the usability. So now in 2020, we've got around 50 different data sets and it's kind of growing every day and people can go in, they can see, you know, where street art is in the city. They can see where Manderbach trucks are. They can see where public toilets are. They can see where fruit trees are and you can see in real time where the buses are on the bus network. Um, so it really does cover a lot of ground. And we're very proud of it.

Olivia: (04:31)

So as you mentioned, the SmartView app links to everything from mobility, food security and beyond. And as you mentioned, I also read that online that people can actually find fruit and nut trees growing on public land to go and snack on, which is pretty exciting. So how did you prioritize the information that should be on the map? And I guess in other words, how did you go about scoping this project?

Michael: (04:44)

Hmm. So that particular datasets, that's been a real kind of success in the last 12 months. And it started off with, um, our data visualizer, um, a guy called Michael Schimek. Um, he came from the Czech Republic and his first job in New Zealand was, um, being in charge of SmartView. And one day recently he said, Hey, wouldn't it be cool if we just put public fruit trees nuts on a map? And we said, yeah, that sounds cool. So he worked with, um, our arborists team to find the data. And then I suppose what is common to a lot of our data sets we kind of, um, I suppose start simply and then work our way up. And so we just started with, um, color-coded symbols on a map of, you know, pear tree, um, Walnut tree, et cetera, et cetera, and then put it out there in the public space and very quickly and quite organically.

Um, uh, there was a lot of uptake from the public and within weeks we're on the national news and we had around 25,000 people coming to the page, I think at the peak of the interest. Um, and then we thought, well, people came back and they said, Hey, actually, you know, some of the trees you've put on, they're actually in my back garden. So we fixed that. And, and um, then we put a filter on, because some people are interested in some species more than others. And then, um, you know, we've got a bit of a backlog for that data set, so we'll put some pictures, so people know what to look for and then also have the option to filter on what's in season as well. Um, so we like to take an iterative approach to start with the MVP and then, you know, based on your user feedback, um, you just work your way up from there. And also, um, in that particular case, there was a lot of interest, but you know, if a dataset doesn't have the interest either you've got to find out what would make it more interesting, or maybe you put it to one side.

Olivia: (06:46)

In the spirit of continuous improvement and what you just shared with us, is there a data set that comes to mind that you actually ended up removing or altering drastically for the purposes of SmartView?

Michael: (06:58)

One dataset that we're dealing with at the moment is, um, the requests for service that we get from the public. And we thought it would be good to put those on the map, but, um, I'm just looking at the data now, there hasn't been a huge amount of uptake and, um, we're kind of thinking why that might be. And then, um, a friend of mine was looking at the data and we use the acronym RFS for requests for service, and he said, what's an RFS. And we went, yeah, true. That makes no sense to anyone outside of council.

Olivia: (07:30)

The classic government trap using acronyms that no one understands.

Michael: (07:34)

Yeah. So there's an example of when that hasn't had a large amount of uptake as people don't know what it is. So, um, we'll be going back to the drawing board on that. But again,until you get the data out there, uh, you don't know if there's going to be interest and you don't know if it makes sense to people, but, um, we like to try I suppose have a call to action. Um, so let's say with, um, e-scooters we've got, you know, you can find e-scooters on a map and so you can go and hire them. But also we've got infographics about the uptake of these scooters over the last two years. And so that's kind of hopefully telling a compelling data story. Plus you've got the practical use, you can actually find a scooter. So where possible we try to kind of have multifaceted, um, approaches, but we don't always get it. Right. 

Olivia: (08:18)

Innovation is all about the iteration, right? Absolutely. So what are some of the other benefits from this app being launched? Uh, would you say that the SmartViews anticipated benefits have materialized and were there any unexpected benefits that have emerged from this project?

Michael: (08:35)

I suppose the unexpected benefits and thinking of fruit and nut and some of the other datasets that have been very popular, um, sometimes yeah, the, the level of interest in certain data sets is surprising. We never ceased to be surprised by the range of people who enjoy using SmartView. And I don't think we've nailed it from a demographic point of view. So if you talk to, let's say the elderly versus the accessible community and and we've engaged a lot with tertiary education providers, we don't always hit the marks. Something we spend a lot of time talking to university students about what appealed to them, and there was a lot of blind spots there. So I think, um, again, it's really important to get that feedback, to work out if you're doing the right things and where you need to improve.

But as I said, in terms of visitor numbers to the web app, you know, it peaked at around 25,000 page views per day, but we've been let it, um, kind of evolve reasonably organically today. But I think we need to make a conscious effort to be more proactive in how we market it and to go to the universities and go to the accessible community and actually just kind of reach out and invite people to come in and start using it. And then they can tell us what datasets are we missing? What would make a 21 year old, use it, or what, or wheelchair user, what are the critical bits of information that they'd need? So I think 2021 will be about marketing more proactively and really engaging in that dialogue with the community. And so we can kind of take it to the next level.

Olivia: (10:10)

It's really important because the data has to apply to the users, right. And as you mentioned, so you need to make sure that you're having that robust stakeholder engagement, which is an important part. Technology in some ways is all about the people. So as you've just underlined in sharing your innovation works for the end user is vital to its success. You mentioned your approach for developing SmartView has been quite iterative. Do you have any specific creative strategies that you can share on how you've engaged various segments of the population, or has it been more ad hoc?

Michael: (10:45)

There's a degree of ad hoc approach. And a lot of the feedback we get is whether it's our general manager or an elected member, or, you know, a person on the street, um, we'll just have that as you say, ad hoc conversation. And a lot of the best studies have come from reasonably random conversations and that's the nature of innovation. Um, you know, there's positive collisions and, um, kind of random acts of creation, but, um, we're definitely going to try to become a bit more structured in terms of having those workshops with, um, the community. And what I'd like to do is just at the, at the earliest possible stage is, you know, get that feedback. What's missing, get people in through that co-creation of the co-design phase and then, um, keep in touch with them. 

And we've talked about it quite a lot, but I think again, hopefully 2021 will be the year where we just, um, really start to live up to those expectations because we talk about that two way dialogue with the community and we don't feel we've nailed it as a council. So the smart Christchurch team's in a good position to, you know, get more proactive in that space and then show the organization the benefits of that. Um, and that we shouldn't be afraid of the community or our citizens and that it is a co-creation, it's a, you know, it's a two-way dialogue. Um, our elected members love the, uh, the idea of active citizenship. So I think we can really make a lot of ground in that space, but again, it takes, um, a lot of work and we need to get a bit more structured to go with the ad hoc kind of approach we've been quite strong on today.

Olivia: (12:21)

Great. So your project success rests on acquiring several data points from different sources. You mentioned the private sector as well. Was this concept met with any initial resistance and how did you go about acquiring a lot of these datasets?

Michael: (12:37)

That's a good question. Um, in terms of resistance, um, to be Frank, I, I think the most resistance came from our own organization in terms of worrying, I suppose, what implications sharing the data would have are that the data wasn't perfect or they're just, you know, we're unsure about the impacts of that. So again, we worked closely with our internal stakeholders to kind of make sure that we're comfortable with the level of data we were sharing, um, and kind of paint the picture of the story that we were trying to tell. And so there's a little bit of handholding there. And then once the data goes out, okay, there's data issues like with the fruit and nut, we had people going people's private back gardens, but you you've got to get the data out there, um, in a practical way for people to tell you what's wrong with it.

If your debt is sitting in a database ignored and unloved, because it's not perfect, there's no impetus to, to get it better. Who'd want to invest in improving that data. So we tried to sell it to our stakeholders. They're getting their data, they're getting used in a practical way will actually give you impetus and hopefully, you know, um, funding, um, to improve it and take it to the next level. In terms of, I suppose, private organizations, it's trying to paint the benefit for both sides. An example was with, um, met service who's, um, a company who manage, um, a lot of the weather and as surf websites, we, we contacted them about the surfing data they had, cause it was a dataset we didn't have and kind of said, you know, we'd really liked to have the high level data of what's happening at the local beaches.

And then when people want more data, we can, um, you know, connect them through to your website. And then you get the benefits of that higher visitor the numbers, um, you know, advertising dollars and so forth. Um, and so hopefully we'll be able to progress that conversation more, but I suppose again, it's just painting the benefits for both sides, but so it's, um, making sure that level of data is, um, fit for the audience and then kind of, um, iteratively improving it. 

We did have concerns as well that people thought we were trying to replace their function or replace the website, our cannibalize, I suppose, what they did. Um, and we really kind of pushed that picture with this citizens, like choice and, um, what channel they make for one day may be different to a channel that for the next. So we're trying to bring them on the journey and say, it's not one website or one map to rule them all. Um, they all have their place and ultimately the community will tell us what works. So if they like, um, one version of another, um, they'll vote with their fate. And so that's another message we've been trying to kind of, um, share with, especially those internal stakeholders.

Olivia: (15:22)

So this platform is certainly impressive and I want to emphasize that it was actually developed in house, correct? So we'll the blueprint for SmartView be made available to the public so that other local governments can use and ultimately replicate?

Michael: (15:40)

Absolutely um I suppose one of the key elements of our program is the idea of replication. What works here will probably work in Oakland or further fields in London or Paris, um, and vice versa. What's being done overseas and nationally, um, has real applications here. So I often think of smart cities programs as being like magpies, looking for shiny things. And we got around borrowing from each other and then reusing it and adapting it to our local context. So for SmartView specifically, we've been, um, talking to a lot of local authorities in New Zealand and even to a couple in Australia as well about the idea of having a SmartView Hamilton or a SmartView, Hawke's Bay, a SmartView cell, one district council. Um, and I suppose the bigger picture being that we want to create a SmartView in New Zealand.

So when visitors come into Auckland or one of the main centers, they've got a local data set and local stories in front of them. And as they move through the country, um, that changes to SmartView Wellington and a smartview Christchurch. So in terms of those conversations, um, Hamilton is the most advanced and we've got the beta site ready to go. So hopefully we'll get that live early in the new year. And, um, Hawke's Bay in the East part of the North Island is very keen too, and closer to home. We've got some other districts like Selwyn and that we're hoping to have their version and then specifically critical mass. So we can call it SmartView New Zealand. And, uh, we do have enough people on board to make it useful from a national perspective, but also, I mean, we've been thinking as well as local authorities, why don't we open it up to tertiary organizations?

Michael: (17:21)

So we do have a plan to make the code available to other types of organizations too. And so it can kind of evolve and, um, adapt to the local context. You've got the practical considerations of making sure that you kind of keep the, um, common experience and the look and feel, and you've got security issues. So we'll just have to work through the more boring logistical side of things, but ultimately, yeah, we want to open this up to everyone. Yeah. And the offering goes to all of your audience today as well. So if anyone's keen on getting SmartView anywhere in the world, come hit us up.

Olivia: (18:00)

Well, that's a great offer. Thinking about our audience, not all local governments will have the resources to build something like SmartView in-house and as they patiently await for the SmartView Christchurch codes to be made available publicly online, what advice would you share to local governments that are looking to better leverage their data just generally?

Michael: (18:24)

It's a very good question. I suppose going back to the idea of cities working with each other and smaller organizations. I'm seeing a lot of examples in New Zealand of smaller authorities having partnerships with the bigger centers, um, so they can effectively kind of pool their resources. And that is especially when you, haven't got a lot of resources and money, is a smart way to do it. So, um, go to those, your neighbors and see what you can do together. But the other thing is just experimentation. And I suppose in, you know, going back to the early days of SmartView was that ugly duckling. Um, it was a very, uh, interesting shade of green from memory. Um, get it out there, give your community the chance to give you feedback. But I suppose with the emergence of the likes of power BI and some of the platforms and some of the free visualization platforms, you can do a lot, um, with not a lot of money these days.

Um, so I think the visualization of data has been democratized to that degree. Like a lot of technology, whether you're doing a podcast, creating your own film or music, there's a lot of stuff now we can do that you couldn’t do 10 years ago without the money. So I think, look at the free tools or Angie look at the smart people in your organization, or, you know, in your local university or your high schools, and then come together and give it a go. Um, what's the worst that's gonna happen? Um, the people won't come to your, um, to your platforms.

Olivia: (20:01)

Not the end of the world, really, especially in light of everything that's going on now. It's pretty, pretty light in terms of the consequence there.

Michael: (20:11)

But I suppose it goes back to the principle in the innovation space, you've got to be brave, and you've got to open yourself up to the fact that you will fail maybe 50% of the time. Um, but as long as you're telling the story and reflecting on the lessons you've learned and apply them to the next thing you do, then, um, you know, no harm, no foul,

Olivia: (20:29)

Absolutely. And just rethinking about your SmartView journey, how you mentioned that it was an ugly duckling, and now it's very much a Swan. So very exciting. Um, do you have time for a few more quick questions?

Michael: (20:45)

Absolutely. Yep.

Olivia: (20:47)

Perfect. So can you share with me a govtech product you'd highly recommend and why?

Michael: (20:54)

That's a good question also. Um, so thinking back to the magpie analogy and how we're always looking around for shiny things, there's just so many products out there. Personally, I've been very excited about the potential for AI and machine learning, and it's been an area of focus for us over the last year. One of those examples is, um, you know, pothole detection, um, and that's typically what it's becoming quite widespread as an example of a technology where you've got a host of vehicles that are going around collecting rubbish, sweeping, you know, the roads are, you know, going around to doing any number of functions and with the addition of a camera and, um, some relatively straightforward technology, you can, you know, survey your roads in real time.

And then if you can survey at your roads, you can survey, you know, missing road signs or dumped rubbish or trees over power lines. So I think that's quite an exciting space in terms of utilizing the footage we can get as our fleets go through either the network and then proactively pinging back to home base and saying, you know, pick up that dumped rubbish or fix that pothole, or, you know, um, cut that tree. And I suppose from a broader level, give you information about your asset network. So you can have a much better intelligence about how your roads are aging or whether you need to invest in one part of the city over another. So I think that's an exciting space and not to mention one player. I mean, we've done, um, porthole detection trial with a local university. Um, it's gone very well and it's been useful for them in terms of, um, a good way to learn about data and the application of AI.

Michael: (22:35)

And we've done another project, um, using, uh, machine learning, taking the photos we get from the public of graffiti, uh, putting it into an app that effectively analyzes it looks for signatures and tags and then tracks where recidivist offenders are kind of, um, active throughout the city. And then we can kind of work with a place in community groups just to, um, intercede and have a conversation and, um, you know, get those kids onto the right track with street art. And, you know, we've got a lot of street art happening in Christchurch and you can make a living out of it if you good, um, or else, you know, at the very minimum kind of stop. So that's been a space, um, that we're definitely, uh, excited about in terms of the potential and thinking what a change can make to the customer or the communities, um, experience.

So, as I said, if we know about that porthole before a member of the public even sees it, or let's say a member of the public can take a photo of anything and we can work out what the problem is, and we know where the location is, we can sort it out without having to ask them 10, 20, 50 questions. So I think anywhere that we can make it easier for the public in terms of how they interact with us and how we get on top of things more proactively, um, is a really good space for local authority planning.

Olivia: (23:50)

So what's something, I mean, there's lots of things that seem to excite you about the future of civic innovation and Christchurch. Is there something else you would like to add that really excites you?

Michael: (24:03)

I suppose the beauty of innovation is that we don't know what's coming around the corner. I mentioned pothole technology that was reasonably cutting edge a year ago, but now there's a lot of people playing in that space and people often ask us, what's the technology roadmap for the city for the next five or 10 years. And to be quite frank, I could probably guess what it might be for the next year or two, but after that, it becomes a bit of a blur. So I suppose in the same way, we don't know what challenges are going to hit us. COVID is obviously the most, um, you know, um, obvious example, but for us, 10 years ago, we didn't know earthquakes were going to change our city. And for, you know, Australia that didn't know the Bush fires were going to have such a major impact.

So we're all going through kind of, um, these unprecedented kind of challenges. Um, and sometimes it's on a local scale and sometimes it's a global scale and we're all going through the same thing. Um, so I suppose in the same way that we don't know what opportunities or challenges is going to face us, we don't know what technology's going to emerge as well. So I think that the biggest appeal of being an innovation is you don't know what's next. Um, but you've gotta be looking at constantly to see what that might be or get the smart people in the room together and get them thinking and get them creative.

Olivia: (25:16)

Absolutely. It's interesting how resilience and innovation somehow go hand in hand.

Michael: (25:23)

Um, this year we ran a series of strategy workshops as we refresh our strategy, but one of the key themes that came out, um, with external and internal stakeholders, um, want the program to assist with how we react to climate change. So climate change will be an obvious area of focus over the coming years. And I suppose the potential for, I suppose, technology created the situation that we're in effectively. Um, but the ability for technology and innovation to get us in a better space, I suppose that is a major pill. It's a major challenge, but, um, if we can make major progress in that space, then obviously that'll be a game changer for us and generations to come.

Olivia: (26:06)

Absolutely. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today. We're looking forward to more projects like SmartView. Hopefully there's SmartViews that pop up everywhere. That's the aim. And thanks again for joining us here today.

Michael: (26:23)

My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Lindsay: (26:27)

SmartView is a great example of how an iterative approach is often the best way to innovate. By being bold and overcoming initial internal hesitancy, SmartView came to be, and is continuously growing. With plans to now replicate nationally. We're excited to see where this goes. To stay informed on this project and others visit us at Govlaunch. I'm Lindsay Pica-Alfano, and this podcast was produced by gov launch the Wiki for local government innovation. You can subscribe to hear more stories like this, wherever you get your podcasts. If you're a local government innovator, we hope you'll help us on our mission to build the largest free resource for local governments globally. You can join to search and contribute to the wiki at Thanks for tuning in. We hope to see you next time on the Govlaunch podcast.