Drowning in data? Cities develop code for a smarter future

Explaining how technology can boost residents’ quality of life, and protecting their privacy will be crucial, experts say.

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

From building electricity trading platforms for households to digitising bus routes and 3D imaging of new green buildings, big data and technology can help transform cities into healthier, safer and more convenient places to live, urban experts say.

But work towards that goal is still at an early stage, and there are many open questions around how best to deliver “smart cities” that benefit all inhabitants, including the poor, the elderly and other communities at risk of being excluded.  

conference on the theme in Barcelona this month heard data can be both a friend and foe of urban dwellers, depending on how it is used and to what end.

“The real people on the streets sometimes feel like technology is something that is done to them, not necessarily with them or for them,” said Jason Whittet, associate director for solutions development and innovation at the New York-based 100 Resilient Cities network, which helps cities face up to modern-day pressures.

Urban areas are increasingly using data and the Internet of Things—which networks objects—to solve growing challenges of reducing traffic, managing waste, and supplying water and energy cleanly and more efficiently.

Doing data for data’s sake makes no sense. Talk to people, figure out what your challenges are, and then what data you have available and… what can you do with it.

Esteban Leon, head, UN-Habitat’s City Resilience Profiling Programme

But the users of those services—city residents—need to understand what is changing and why, as well as having a say in how smart technology is designed and applied, especially when it gathers their data to deliver an improved service.  

Whittet cited the example of Sidewalk Labs, an urban innovation subsidiary of Google’s parent firm, that plans to create a futuristic waterfront neighbourhood in Toronto.

The Canadian project has run into a row over who owns the data that will be collected by sensors in public spaces, and how the data will be stored and deployed, with the public fearing privacy breaches, the Business Insider website reported.   

Whittet noted Sidewalk Labs had taken steps to reassure people. “But what is the right way to explain this to the community and include them so that people are saying, ‘Yes, this is good, we want to adopt and use this’, rather than a negative knee-jerk reaction?” he asked in a dialogue on digital innovation.

Cities should make sure they retain ownership of their data, rather than handing it over to businesses, he added.

Esteban Leon, who heads UN-Habitat’s City Resilience Profiling Programme, said cities should only gather data that has a practical use.

“There is no point in collecting it if it doesn’t help you make decisions and come up with something more concrete,” he noted.

Though many cities say they have “great data”, often it is not organised in a way that can be used to make a place more resilient and livable, said Elaine Trimble, director of urban development with Siemens.

“Doing data for data’s sake makes no sense. Talk to people, figure out what your challenges are, and then what data you have available and… what can you do with it,” she urged.

Real-life benefits

Experts at the conference outlined some positive ways data and technology can be harnessed to help residents.

In the Netherlands, a platform using “building information management” models can show apartment owners how upgrading their home could save on energy bills, and feed that information into district or even city-wide assessments, said Gerard de Leede, a professor at the Jheronimus Academy of Data Science.

Meanwhile, in New York’s Brooklyn borough, Siemens has worked on a project to develop a system that allows neighbours to sell each other power from the solar panels on their roofs using the existing grid combined with electronic payments and blockchain. 

In moving onto a low-carbon, resilient path, cities are testing out new business models involving government authorities, businesses and communities, said Siemens’ Trimble - but wellbeing must be the priority.

“If our smart tech does not improve the quality of life of people, we have… somehow failed,” she said.

To persuade urban residents to adopt greener modes of transport, it is important to explain how it will make things better for them, she said. Electric vehicles will cut down on air pollution and related damage to health, for instance. 

To get drivers out of private cars and onto buses and trains, authorities could try making journeys on public transport cheaper the more passengers use it, as one northern Spanish city does, she suggested.

“If we really want people to act differently, we have to tell them why we want them to act differently,” she said.

Street talk

Amol Naik, chief resilience officer of Atlanta, which is grappling with high levels of wealth disparity and social inequality, emphasised the need to prevent smart city technologies exacerbating gentrification and shutting people out.

If certain groups are not sharing data in high-tech schemes, a city must ensure they are not excluded and find another way to capture their needs, he added.

Pilot projects involving locals are a way of finding out what they really want and addressing concerns at an early stage, experts said.

People’s eyes start to glaze over if they hear terms like sustainability and resilience, Naik said. But couching it in terms of practical advantages such as more affordable housing or cheaper energy can get them interested, he said.

“We have to meet people where they are—not where we want them to be,” he told the conference.

100RC’s Whittet noted that in dealing with longer-term issues, such as the effects of a warming climate or large-scale migration, cities will need to roll out some fixes, like new infrastructure, over a 10 to 20-year time horizon.

“Those (cities) that take time and energy today to engage their communities are clearly going to have an edge,” he said.

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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