Data, People, Places

In this article

Over the last year, Cat MaGill from EFI’s Adoption and Engagement Team has been working with Edinburgh Living Lab on a data- and design-driven approach to making decisions about places in local communities.

Over the last year, EFI’s Adoption and Engagement Team have been working with Edinburgh Living Lab on a data- and design-driven approach to making decisions about the future of public buildings and places in local communities. Here, Cat Magill from our Adoption Team introduces the project and shares what makes the concept of Smart Places and this project so relevant for communities right now.

We are excited to share Cat’s blog and to also help unveil Edinburgh Living Lab’s Smart Places series. Launching on Friday 22 May, this is a series of published thought pieces from a diverse line up of thinkers, practitioners and experts. In addition to publishing a new article each week, 5 of the 7 publications will be accompanied by a live Tweet Up event to discuss, answer questions and share thoughts. Don’t miss it! Find the full schedule of events here.

Place and community, data and design

Gracemount is a small area south of Liberton on the outskirts of Edinburgh. You’ve definitely passed by it on your way out of town – the A701 bounds it on the west and Lasswade Road on the east. You probably crossed Captain’s Road without a passing thought, and yet for young people in Gracemount this is a defining boundary that shapes their relationships, activities, and sense of safety.

Last year, Edinburgh Living Lab partnered with the City of Edinburgh Council to test a data- and design-driven approach to making decisions about the future of public buildings in local communities, with the pilot taking place in Gracemount. The project aimed to demonstrate how innovative use of data integrated with community-centred design could identify new trajectories for people and place.

Local micro boundaries

Looking for a project name early on, we agreed with the Council to call the initiative ‘My Gracemount’. That was before we knew that the area on the south side of Captain’s Road, while considered by the Council to be part of the Gracemount small area, is actually made up of Burdiehouse and Southhouse – and residents of those areas typically do not identify as residents of Gracemount.

Micro boundaries like these are not only part of people’s identities; they’re part of their lived experience. Captain’s Road is a busy road with few pedestrian crossings. If you’re an elderly person trying to access the Libertus day care services, you might find it intimidating to get to or from the bus stop on the opposite side of the road. If you’re a young person who accessed youth services at the now-closed Gracemount Mansion on the north side of the road, you might feel less inclined to go to Valley Park Community Centre on the south side, because not only is it likely to be further from your house, but you’ll have to walk past a notorious drinking establishment to get there. If you’re a parent, you may not feel comfortable letting your younger children cross the road on their own – it would require moving beyond an invisibly defined ‘safe’ boundary.

Needs and desires – creating complex infrastructures

In order for a place to provide what people need and desire – be it an essential service such as food or healthcare, a place for relaxation, a human connection, access to green space and nature, opportunities for sports and physical activity or otherwise – its many components need to work together effectively. There are complex layers of physical, service and social infrastructure that, if thoughtfully and intentionally integrated, can build on and amplify the assets and resources of a place and the people who live there.

Living data that supports holistic place improvement

One of the aims of the emerging Smart Places initiative in the Edinburgh Futures Institute is to understand how we can bring together data from different sources to create a more holistic picture of how places can support human and environmental health and well-being. Data for us encompasses stories and documentation of people’s experiences, values and priorities alongside statistics, spatial data, and other kinds of data commonly collected in computer systems. We are particularly keen to look at how we integrate different types of data to create new perspectives on challenging problems.

Gracemount, Burdiehouse, Southhouse – creating a story

In what eventually became the ‘Our Gracemount – Burdiehouse – Southhouse’ project, we collected and integrated conversations, photographs and comments on a public exhibition with analysis of people flows, building usage and accessibility of services based on proximity. This provided an emerging picture of community needs and showed potentially underutilised community assets that could be aligned with a few adjustments – for example focusing on delivery of free wifi rather than static computer labs in the community centre, or creating pop-up seating areas in an empty space near the local shops to make it more welcoming as a place to relax, gather with friends and eat together.

Community and place

There were also more substantial opportunities for improvements, such as better integration of building, service and planning data to make sure that buildings are more responsive to the needs of growing and changing communities. Or ensuring better collection of data about the options and levels of participation in community activities and using that data to make sure that there is a range of activities for all ages and income levels on offer in the community. These are bigger, often systemic conversations about how we come together to understand places.

Our sense of place and community has been drastically reshaped over the last few weeks, and we are keen to use this opportunity to look creatively at the spaces around us, to understand how places shape communities and vice versa. We look forward to the conversations that will be sparked by the Smart Places events taking place over the coming month and the ideas and insights that will emerge from them.

Visit for more information about some of our other activities related to Smart Places.

Edinburgh Living Lab is part of the University of Edinburgh’s Futures Institute. Edinburgh Living Lab works with partners across the city region, to design and test innovative uses of data that address specific challenges, improve quality of life for people and support sustainable and inclusive urban development. It was co-founded by the University of Edinburgh and the City of Edinburgh Council.

Edinburgh Living Lab’s work is also linked to the Data-Driven Innovation [DDI] programme as part of the Edinburgh and South East Scotland the City Region Deal. This reflects the growing importance of data in economic growth, social change, and public services.

Cat Magill

Business Engagement Portfolio Manager

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