This story was originally published on Friday Oct. 28, 2022 in my weekly IoT newsletter.
Cities adopt technology for two primary reasons: safety and cost savings. Both of these are driven by a need to please constituents who want lower taxes and the perception of safer streets. Thus, we’ve seen cities adopt LED lighting to save on energy costs, and services such as Shot Spotter, which listens for gunfire and reports the location to police.
Both reasons are also why cities are increasingly turning to surveillance technology in the form of cameras and license plate readers. Solving or stopping crimes gets a lot of voter interest and thus, politicians’ attention. But smart cities should be about so much more, and could in turn solve more pressing problems, such as pollution and protecting infrastructure from climate change.
Such investment requires a long-term view toward the role a smart city could play in citizens’ lives in the environment, but it’s worth trying. Instead of spending money on surveillance tech, I’d like to see interest move to data collection aimed at defending municipal infrastructure against natural disasters wrought by climate change and pollution monitoring that could help reduce the effects of these disasters and improve overall citizen health.
I’m not alone. Alicia Asin, CEO of Libelium, which provides smart city infrastructure in Europe, says that among clients, smart city tech such as air pollution monitoring is on the rise, indicating that at least in Europe, the tide may be shifting. In general, Europe is far ahead of the U.S. when it comes to investment in smart cities. Some of this shift is covered in a report Libelium published earlier this month.
Asin expects cities to start tracking more data and would like to see that data shared with citizens through a process she calls “datocratization.” I hate that word, but the concept of collecting data and sharing it with citizens at their request is something I’m a big believer in. Too often, smart city vendors want data on citizens to create services, rather than deliver data to citizens so they can build services.
For example, smart traffic apps might ask for my location to help me optimize my route into the office each day, telling me when the best time to leave is. But in a more privacy-centric city, I could simply pull the traffic data from an API feed into my chosen app, then leave the house at a time that appears reasonable to me. There’s a bit more effort on my end, but the privacy trade-off is worth it.
Additionally, having access to city-wide traffic data helps me as a citizen assess whether or not road projects are needed and how effective various policy moves are. We often hear politicians talk about being data-driven, but a citizenry with access to the data can more effectively weigh in on processes. That’s “datocratization.”
But Asin recognizes that to achieve this level of understanding and accountability there needs to be a lot more education around data literacy, from understanding how data collection can skew results to reading graphs and charts to understand when politicians are trying to manipulate the numbers. After COVID and the misrepresentation of illness rates, and even the changing ways that national governments tracked the disease, Asin believes citizens are primed for learning and understanding these issues.
I’m less optimistic, but do think access to municipal sensor data could become a powerful tool for accountability for everything from public health to inequity in public investments. That ties into why cities should make these investments. Asin says that as more workers can choose to live anywhere and work remotely, cities will have to market themselves based on their citizens’ wellbeing. That will include personal safety, but also public health and resilience to natural disasters.
Getting to this place and sharing data among public officials and citizens will require companies that provide smart city equipment and services to be willing to share the data they collect, and to engage in robust policies around its security and use. Obviously, not all city data should be shared, which means contractors must have security in place and avoid selling citizen data.
Meanwhile, in order to share some data with citizens, vendors will have to stop thinking of data as proprietary and the key to their financial success. A contractor selling smart city infrastructure can’t think of data as the new oil, securing the pipeline of data only for themselves. Instead, they must think of data as pollen, something that must be spread about to generate new value in many different venues.