What is digital infrastructure?

Many governments and cities are discussing the importance of investment in digital infrastructure to maintain competitiveness. Sounds a very sensible and effective strategy, but this rises a number of questions.

What is infrastructure?

This might be obvious to many people, however, if you ask a group of people, you would get a range of answers. This wikipedia article elaborates the ideas of infrastructure and introduces telecommunications as a contemporary infrastructure.

What is a digital infrastructure?

Often government leaders assume that digital infrastructure refers to the internet or high speed broadband. The analogy is that of roads that allow the movement of goods between locations.  The digital infrastructure needs to allow the rapid movement of digital data between locations. So it is natural to think that super fast broadband is the answer. This analogy is a good starting point, but misses some differences between road networks and data networks.

Why does data need to move between locations?

Data needs to move to the place where a person can view or make use of that data. For example viewing a webpage or launching a connected app on a smartphone. This is at the edge of the network, however, there are much more complex interactions that are not seem by the consumers of data. Drawing connections between pools of data, analysing data requires the data to move to algorithms or algorithms need to move to the data. A search engine such as Google is constantly accessing websites to capture changes or identify new websites. Data is being backed to be re-accessed in the event of failures.

The cities data infrastructure needs to cater for a wide range of interaction patterns as well as data storage and  analysis. Using the road analogy, the design needs to consider car parking, placement of warehouses for trucks, and pedestrian zones. In the same way the city data infrastructure needs to consider data centres, open data platforms, mobile phone network access etc.

What is the value of the data and what infrastructure can the city afford?

Firstly, we need to remember that it is the use of the data that helps  create value. The three equations I described in a previous blog post help in identifying the role of digital infrastructure.

  1. Capturing data and making this available for analysis. Open data is particularly important in creating ecosystems of innovators.
  2. Access from analysis. Allowing all types of appropriate access to algorithms that will turn the raw data into information that in its own right can allow a range of decisions and uses.
  3. Creation of models or context system that identify new insights. Identifying anomalies, deviations or correlations that will inspire new actions. Ultimately the actions are the means of creating value from the data.

So the digital infrastructure for a city needs to cater for these uses and be priced at an affordable level for the organisations or individuals.

Cities should start by understanding what data is needed to satisfy the citizens, the business and institutions. Then the range of data facilities that will be satisfy these requirements. Then determine which of these elements are best provided via a city wide digital infrastructure.

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