'Get machines to do development management processes', conference told

Development management processes such as application validation and fee calculation should be done by computers to help speed the planning process and allow planners to focus on 'more complex decision-making', the Planning for Housing conference was told yesterday.

Euan Mills speaking at the Planning for Housing conference yesterday
Euan Mills speaking at the Planning for Housing conference yesterday

Euan Mills, urban futures team lead at government-backed think-tank Future Cities Catapult, was speaking at the closing session of the conference on the use of technology in planning.

He said that, currently, planners are spending time on "manual analogue processes" that could be done by a machine.

Mills identified areas such as application validation, fee calculations and legal agreements as areas where computers can work "better and faster" than humans and in a way that "makes the whole process more efficient".

He said planners could then spend more time on "more complex decision-making and actually planning".

Mills also said that computers could be used for "screening" development proposals.

"Before the case officer looks at a complex proposal, the computer could look at it first and say ‘there’s some key issues here: you’ve got four flats which are below your space standards, a number of them are north-facing’. You decide what to do, but maybe the computer can screen things and identify what the key issues are", he said.

Elsewhere, Mills stressed the need for the public sector to take the lead in gathering data on urban areas.

"Today Google knows more about our cities and high streets than the planning department does", he said.

Mills said that planners should be collating data in a way that could be used to map local areas, keep planning policies up to date and be understood by computers.

"We need to move from a world of documents to a world of data. We need to start valuing data as planners", he said.

Also speaking at the session, Polly Hudson, director at the Colouring London initiative and a doctoral researcher at University College London's Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, highlighted the current lack of data on urban areas available to planners. 

"We don’t have data available at building level on cities", she said. "It’s completely and utterly ridiculous in this day and age that we can’t just find out information about the characteristics of every building."

Hudson said that the Colouring London initiative - an online ‘citizen science’ project - is intended to fill this void and act as a "wikipedia for spatial data on the built environment".

She said the platform would allow people to collect, visualise, collate and disseminate data on the characteristics of "every single building in London".

Public testing on the platform will start next month with a main launch scheduled for spring next year, she said. More details can be found here. 

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