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Virtual Community Engagement

Virtual Community Engagement

Researchers at the University of Salford's THINKlab had an objective to develop a virtual environment for stakeholders of MediaCityUK to aid physical, social and economic transformation that initially set out to address the following research questions:

  • What are the key characteristics of a digital infrastructure that can support stakeholder engagement in large-scale urban transformation projects such as MediaCityUK?
  • What type of new data models and visual metaphors are necessary for representing various social and economic data at a city level?
  • What form of virtual interfaces are necessary to support stakeholder engagement?

A ‘Living Lab’ methodology was employed to address these research questions. The idea behind the Living Lab is to introduce end-users as the co-creators of technology products, to design, develop, evaluate, provide feedback and apply the technology in real-world settings.

In order to define the initial specification for the virtual environment, a series of living lab workshops were conducted involving partners from Salford Policy and Improvement Team, Salford Research and Intelligence Group, Urban Vision, Salford GIS and Ordnance Survey. These workshops helped identify challenges faced by stakeholders in the city, in terms of disintegrated databases, interoperability issues, lack of team-centric tools for stakeholders to explore complex social challenges, and community engagement tools.

This early exploratory work helped the team identify desirable characteristics of an ICT platform for supporting urban regeneration around a large-scale project such as MediaCityUK, leading to the design and implementation of a ‘Mirror World’ concept for Salford. This work defined the Mirror World as informationally-enhanced virtual models or ‘reflections’ of the physical world, that integrate sophisticated virtual mapping data, real-time data from sensors and social data extracted from various data sources.

A software architecture was designed around the Mirror World concept that can exploit the power of advanced visualisation, service oriented architecture, integrated data models and multi-user interfaces. The team then took the challenge of designing and creating the first version of the Mirror World as a first proof of concept demonstrator and to connect with a range of stakeholders in the city and FIRM partners to identify further research challenges.

A series of presentations were made to a range of senior decision makers from Salford City Council, Greater Manchester Police, Jobcentre Plus, Skills Funding Agency, Salix Homes, Environment Agency and community groups. The purpose of these presentations was to get buy-in from the key stakeholders in the City to ensure greater impact of this research. This task was successfully achieved by securing support from the senior people from a range of agencies in the city. 

This has now been recognised by the University of Salford and the City as an ‘Iconic Project’ and the University is now offering the emerging technology platform to the LEP (Local Enterprise Partnership) to support their strategic planning and inter-agency working. 

The potential of this technology platform has been explored by many stakeholders in the City of Salford for various application possibilities beyond its initial intended purpose.  Virtual Community Engagement has become an umbrella project for a number of strands of work within FIRM, see CoMedia, MediaSense,  MirrorWorld, Surface Table13Spaces.

Virtual Community Engagement and the development of the digital city environment (using advanced visualisation techniques to aid engagement and decision-making) was applied to support the Better Life Chances project, led by the Place Board involving key stakeholders in Salford. The Place Board was made up of senior members from key agencies in the city such as Salford City Council, Greater Manchester Police, Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service, Greater Manchester Against Crimes, Salford PCT, Salix Homes, City West, Job Centre Plus, Environment Agency, with a common objective of creating sustainable environments for three socially deprived areas in Salford (Little Hulton, Broughton and Winton).

This research work allowed these agencies to enhance their current partnership working methods by adopting a novel joint insight platform based on advanced digital technology. Several other city councils are now interested in deploying this digital platform for their partnership working in their city. For example, City councils of Stoke-on-Trent and Manchester City are now working with the THINKLab to explore how the digital city platform could be used to support their partnership challenges in creating sustainable cities.

GM Police digital city platform
Through FIRM, the THINKLab team is now working with GM Police to create three bespoke solutions using the digital city platform: one system for enhancing their intelligence search for crimes, a second system for supporting their planned operations and thirdly, solutions for identifying “troubled families” that need early interventions. Furthermore, City West, which is a social housing association, is now working with the THINKLab team to implement some features of the digital city platform to create a new partnership model with their tenants and other agencies in the city.

City West Prototype
Inspired by the urban simulation platform developed within the FIRM project, a digital platform was prototyped for the City West Housing association to demonstrate how their standalone databases could be integrated within a distributed digital platform to support intelligent data manipulation and visualisation to enhance their current work practices and engagement with other partners in the city to build sustainable communities. Current prototype demonstrates how City West can work closely with their sub contractors and tenants to coordinate their maintenance activities. It also allows City West to identify families effected by the new social welfare reforms and plan their future strategies. This work was conducted in collaboration with the MirrorWorld Technology Ltd whoc is now in the process of developing an exploitation strategy for marketing this digital platform within the housing sector.

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