Future of Manchester under the microscope

A couple of recent events have thrown the future of Manchester into sharp focus as pundits and citizens both look at ways to develop the city in a fitting manner for the future. Manchester is the UK’s third city in terms of size but its second in many other respects. Culturally, it’s been a major hub for over three decades as a centre for music, theatre, TV and media. The latter has becoming increasingly visible in recent years, particularly with the development of Media City (technically in Salford) and the move north by the BBC. Linked to that has been the phenomenal growth of digital start-ups in areas such as marketing, apps, social media and programming.

In the digital arena, the issue of open data for Manchester has been on the table over the last few months. Julian Tait, co-founder of the monthly Social Media Café and one of the city’s “doers” with a yen to get things happening, has been pushing for some time to get Manchester’s various authorities to release their data sets so that people can use the data for the benefit of all. The February meeting of the Social Media Café focused on the topic, with Tait passionately arguing the case for Manchester and guest speakers such as Chris Taggart demonstrating their own experiences in this field.

Then, on 11 May, Tait argued the case again at the Digital Editors’ Network meeting, which focused on data issues. On both occasions, Tait observed that only City Hall has complete access to Manchester’s data sets yet in a technologically based society giving everyone access to the data, which they have paid for through local taxes, allows them to make informed choices about their communities, their neighbourhoods and their lives. Of course, the data needs to be reworked, something local authorities rarely have the time or cash to do. Allowing the geeks free access to the data sets means they can do creative things with them, such as pinpointing hotspots for ASBOs or areas that suffer from littering, and publish it in visual mashups that are genuinely helpful to residents. The London Datastore (Greater London Authority) and Birmingham City Council are already engaged in this process and Tait argues that Manchester might evolve very differently once the data sets are released.

Last week, Manchester’s annual FutureEverything festival, founded in 1995, took place. A glorious mix of music, arts, technology and debate, the two-day conference at the heart of the event again focused on the theme of open data. A whole day of sessions on the topic explored what open data could mean for Manchester as well as broader presentations by experts both amateur and pro who were keen to share their own experiences. Journalist Sarah Hartley, the Guardian’s local editor, has done an excellent job of summarising the open data strand.

Manchester is also a city of firsts – the first industrial city, the city that gave birth to trade unionism and the city that founded suffragism – so it was no surprise that the keynote event of FutureEverything was the City Debate, which took as its premise that Manchester should become the first experimental city. Manchester is already on the cusp of huge change once again as the authorities shape it for the 21st century and entrepreneurs cement its reputation as a creative and digital powerhouse. But what of ordinary Mancunians?

The debate featured a panel of Manchester’s various movers and shakers, some known and others less so, and was chaired by broadcaster Jennie Murray who lives and works in the city. Festival founder Drew Hemment set out the proposition at the start for an experimental city. A number of questions were on the table regarding vision, sustainability and social inclusion, with panellists having just 90 seconds to set out their visions for Manchester’s future development. Excellent summaries of the discussion have been posted by panellist Kate Feld, Sarah Hartley (again) and Inside the M60.*

The format of the debate was a little clunky – it was well underway before members of the packed audience were allowed the microphone to interrogate the panellists, of whom there were perhaps too many at 20. And no conclusions were reached, unsurprisingly given the very diverse views of those panellists. What it did do was start a conversation among the city’s thinkers, doers, visionaries and purse-keepers. That conversation now needs to move forward. The FutureEverything team already have a few smaller events lined up over the next few weeks and months that will keep the dialogue going. There is a chance now for everyone with a vested interest in Manchester, including residents and those who commute to work here, to have a real say in how this pioneering city of ours takes shape…

* Disclosure: my tweets form part of Hartley’s Cover It Live Blog and I am co-founder of Inside the M60.

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