Smart city drone picture

Smart cities – how data can empower citizens

By Lukasz Gziut on 5th July 2018

The development of smart cities is fast becoming an integral part of many government agendas. Did you know that by 2100, it is estimated that 80% of us will be living in cities? With the growing urbanization of our population, how can we start to plan and implement infrastructure in our cities that will still be fit for purpose in 80 years? Smart cities are being touted as the answer. But what are smart cities?

By definition, the British Standards Institute defines smart cities as the ‘effective integration of physical, digital and human systems in the built environment to deliver a sustainable, prosperous and inclusive future for its citizens’.

In a smart city, infrastructure is built to monitor various aspects from city maintenance, air and water quality, energy usage, to even visitor movement – using technologies such as urban sensing, geotracking and real time analytics. All of which produce a massive amount of data which is processed to deliver the promise of smarter management of cities. Will this ‘big data’ be useful towards improving cities and empowering citizens, or could it be detrimental to workers and city dwellers?

To push the smart cities agenda, the first hurdle that governments need to tackle is funding. In the UK, this is even more of an issue due to public-sector budget cuts. To help drive the development of smart cities, the Technology Strategy Board (now known as Innovate UK) held a competition for 30 cities to win £24million in funding towards developing an innovative smart city. The cities all received £50,000 to conduct an assessment on how they could use the funded money to improve their city’s performance via smart technologies. The winner was Glasgow, and with the money, the city developed a digital infrastructure and data initiatives to make it a more interconnected smart city. These initiatives range from intelligent street lighting that is only used when needed, to a City Data Hub that is able to store and process large amounts of real time datasets. A recent report by MRUK Research showcased how the new improvements provided a positive effect and delivered a return on investment of £144million.

One of the key factors in the success of smart cities is the role of community engagement. Citizens are happier to engage with the smart city concept when they can actively participate in its shaping and become part of it. One such example in Glasgow is the data gathering and the mapping of the city via apps. Walkers and cyclists record their journeys and help other citizens with planning travel routes and monitoring traffic congestion. These data sets are widely available to the public and can be used to create new and exciting innovative solutions. This can also be seen in Singapore, where data is currently being used to make city services more responsive. For example, their Beeline app, used by the privately-operated buses in Singapore, allows citizens to book seats on buses in areas not served by public transport. This not only improves access to transportation for citizens, but it also helps the operator to improve bus schedules and routes.

However, although smart cities have the potential to bring significant benefits to citizens – using digital data to create new products and services, they have raised concerns regarding privacy.  How will the data, such as identifying who we are, where we are and what we are doing, collected through sensors and our smart phones, be handled and will it be safe?

Recently, Google’s Sidewalk Labs announced big plans for Toronto’s waterfront, to develop 12 acres of land into a smart city, from the ground up.  This has created a great deal of online debate and speculation about what kind of futuristic tech may be in store –  it is Google after all.  Although flying cars and teleportation were mentioned, the majority of discussion online was focused more around what a company like Google will do with all the user information that it collects. Sidewalk Labs responded by claiming that the waterfront city will primarily focus on improving the lives of those who live there and extensively collaborate with them, by ‘empowering them’.  However, in recent times citizens have become warier about tech firms (especially in light of the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal) and how they capture, store and use their personal data they collect.

There are two types of data that smart cities primarily collect:

  • Real-time data
  • Aggregated data.

Aggregated data is used to track larger quantities of data to identify trends, for example the most popular parking spots to adjusting the brightness of streetlights dependent on crowd size. Since this type of data is aggregated, it cannot be linked to one individual to gain information about them. Real-time data focuses more on individuals, for example Renew London piloted a program in 2013 in which they installed sensors in bins in central London that tracked individuals’ WiFi signals in their phones. The sensor would pick up the phone’s unique MAC address (media access control) and target ads on the bin based on that individual’s movement within the scope of the sensor. So, for example, if they walked past a food place multiple times, the individual would see more adverts of that particular restaurant. The company then tried to target the individuals with those adverts online, without their permission (which they were legally allowed to do), but after the details came to light they were asked to halt the program. To tackle problems such as misuse of data, it has been suggested that governments or local authorities should implement a more transparent relationship with individuals and companies creating a ‘data contract’. The recently introduced General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) may help to provide some safeguards in this respect.

There is also the issue of cybersecurity. As our cities get smarter they could become even more vulnerable to cyber-attacks with serious implications. Hackers, using ransomware (think back to the recent incidents in the NHS), could take control of buildings, systems or key infrastructure such as utilities with dire consequences.  Combatting this threat will require significant resources and the responsibility will need to be shared by governments, businesses and citizens alike.

Although much of the focus to date has been on the bigger cities such as London, Copenhagen and Atlanta, the smart city concept can also impact positively on smaller populations – the Isle of Man infrastructure department has the ‘Report a Problem’ app that let citizens report problems from broken street and traffic lights to potholes and broken water mains. There is also the ‘Bus-Man’ app that tracks buses in real-time. In fact, smaller populations could provide an ideal test bed for smart city technological innovations. There is little doubt that smart cities have the potential to make a big difference to society and improve the city dwelling experience for populations across the world so long as data is collected and used responsibly, and the infrastructure is resilient and cyber-safe.