How one open data pilot programme in Delft  pivoted during COVID-19

by Cinthya Anand

When a world-conquering virus shuts down the local university and with it the movement of thousands of students who would otherwise be flying around the city on their bikes, how does one go about collecting data on cycle flows in the city? This was the challenge faced by the city of Delft and SKIAlabs, an Amsterdam-based startup working with the city on optimizing cycle flows as part of the Smart City Innovation Booster Programme

The pandemic has brought on unforeseen challenges for European startups, with funding being cut and projects put on hold. However, the bright minds at Gemeente Delft and SKIAlabs saw an opportunity to rejig the project to ensure their open data innovation pilot stayed on track.

We met up (virtually) with Fons Van der Ham, Project Manager at Gemeente Delft, and Anastasia Borovykh, co-founder of SKIAlabs, to talk about innovation during the pandemic and how perseverance can beat all odds:

Q. Anastasia, tell us a bit about how you got involved in the SCIFI pilot.

Anastasia: My cofounder Yous van Halder and I met at university and we were keen to apply our machine learning knowledge to real-world problems. When we heard about the SCIFI challenge and its mission to connect innovators with city authorities, it seemed a perfect fit for us and so we applied and were accepted.

Q. The pandemic and subsequent global lockdown have been challenging for both city authorities and entrepreneurs. How did you cope?

Fons: A situation like a pandemic, while never ideal, can nudge us to change how we do things and to improvise and innovate. Our first thought was that we would need to halt the entire programme. In the case of Delft, our pilot was specifically around mobility and the university had been shut down. [Delft is a university city with a large student population.] We even wondered if we should postpone the pilot to 2021 but were worried about losing momentum and the effect on the startups themselves, many of which were very early stage.

SKIA Labs suggested that we stick to our current pace and revise the last milestone to focus on historical data, and to continue the project outside the scope of the pilot down the line, which seemed an agreeable way forward.

Anastasia: Our initial objective set by the city of Delft was to provide a snapshot of cyclist behaviour and to find ways to ease cycle flows in the city. As it was no longer possible to measure real-time data, we had to rethink our next steps. We decided to work with historical data sourced from external providers for the time period November 2019 to February 2020. By extrapolating data points for weather, time, and university calendar, we were able to create a digital twin of mobility flows in the city.

We continued to collect data in subsequent months using mobile applications which also allowed us to see the cycling flow changes that COVID-19 was bringing about.

Q. The SCIFI project looks at interoperability of data and the use of open data sets. Do cities have sufficient open data sets for generating useful IoT solutions?

Anastasia: While cities in the Netherlands have open data in certain areas such as road networks, park locations, garbage bin locations, event information, and some cities even have open-access dashboards so that citizens can access this information easily, in this particular case we did not have open data on traffic flow and routes so we partnered with companies that collected this information.

Q. Outside of the SCIFI pilot, how has the pandemic affected your work?

Anastasia: Since we focus on optimizing mobility services for logistics, a few of our projects were affected, for example our project on commercial waste collection had to be paused as shops were closed. With time, things returned to normal as restaurants and some offices slowly re-opened. Parcel deliveries actually increased during the pandemic, and household waste collection never really stopped. So while it was definitely a challenge to continue running the company during the pandemic, we managed to grow quite a bit by adapting our product quickly to renewed market needs.

Fons: Of course, we have all moved to video calls – I have 10 different video call applications running on my computer at the moment! However, I feel for creative thinking, we still need to be able to get together in a room to brainstorm or even to bounce ideas off each other during a coffee break. At Delft, we have been looking at other ways to make this sort of creative flow happen, such as using virtual whiteboards or even virtual reality. I hope that we can move past the pandemic and return to our identity as a ‘cycling city’ soon.

Q. Tell us a bit more about your experience of being part of the SCIFI Booster Programme and what you hope to achieve through it.

Anastasia: In the first week we were all a bit lost as we did not know how the pilot would work out, but I think everyone adapted relatively quickly. Our connections at Delft kept in regular touch and helped us transition smoothly to the new milestones. We want to continue working with Delft and other European cities to use open data to solve real-world challenges, be it waste management or vehicle flows.

Fons: We are quite pleased with current progress and feel the project will bring a lot of positive change to the city, and hope to extend the field test beyond the pilot phase. Currently we are also introducing the project with neighbouring cities in the Rotterdam/The Hague region. The Smart City Innovation Booster Programme can help civic authorities to innovate quickly and make administrative changes which could otherwise take years, and for this reason I am very glad to be a part of this project.

The SCIFI partners are putting together a report based on learnings from the 12 pilots which will be released in 2021, which will cover issues such as opening data, interoperability of solutions, co-creation and innovative procurement.  If you would like to receive a copy, REGISTER HERE.