Smart Cities

What is a Smart City?

This is a question that seems to elude many, from citizens on the street to the planners and future city visionaries. When asked the question gets a unique answer from all, although the general essence is to be using technology in a way that improves the lives of the citizens who live in the cities. The answer on how to achieve this is appears even more elusive. The goals of the different stakeholders have yet to been pinned down, formulated and agreed.

Who are the stakeholders in the Smart City? Well the answer appears to be that in a short number of years virtually everybody will be affected. It is believed by Michael Batty, Professor at UCL – Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, that by the turn of the next century 90% – 95% of the world’s population will be living in cities. This means that to create an environment where we all want to live, tackling social issues live crime and public health, the government above all has to be prepared and engage with the Smart City concept.

In a free market economy like ours, it’s possible that the government can rely to some extent on the private sector seeking market opportunities and exploiting them. One of the best ways to encourage this is to provide a clear structure for the use and the access to data.

Data is key.

‘Big Data’ is a term that is used to describe the vast amount of information collected about us while we interact with technology. Sometimes we have very little control over the data collected about us but often we have control and through a convention of acceptance, we allow the data to be collected. For example, in London the Oyster Card can track our movements though the public transport system or supermarkets can track our shopping habits. Vast amounts of data is created and collected with virtually all our interactions with new technology.

90% of all data, all the information that has ever existed in the world has been produced during the last 2 years” – Peter Madden, Chief Executive of Future Cities Catapult.

With this quote in mind we have to think of how we use this data, what does it show us? Is it safe for others to have? What concerns us and what trade-off do we make for others to use this data in relation to what services it provides back for us? We have to use this data smartly, to coin a phrase. It may well be that the best way to achieve this is through regulation set by the government that lays down a clear structure of how this data should be used.

There are a number of large companies that see the opportunity and profitable potential in collecting and manipulating this data to provide services for the future. Due to recent scandals and high-profile failures to protect the public, citizens are understandable sceptical of large companies collecting data on them. This includes the government itself. This was highlighted in a recent ‘Hackathon’ event held in London.

A Hackathon is an event where technically minded individuals, often referred to as geeks, get together and make prototype applications from anything they can get their hands on. In the recent ‘Hack The Government’ Hackathon, departments from the UK Government opened up some of the data they had including the Food Standards Agency and said to the participants, “Go do something useful with this, open our eyes to the possibilities”. One particularly interesting project looked at the security of local government websites. It highlighted the fact that, at a local government level, the security of our data is, in cases, extremely poor. It is for this reason and others that citizens have a high level of concern about governments and companies storing their personal information. If a civic-minded hacker in London can find out the personal information of a resident of Inverness via local government websites, what can a criminal do? Why would any of us submit to having this data collected and do we have a choice?

Click ‘Accept’?

“States only respond to pressure from citizens…the moment data becomes a political problem the politicians will become interested. Which actually means you have to care about it, because if you don’t care about it, if you don’t change your Facebook settings and refuse to give certain information then the state won’t care either.” – Professor Chris Reed, Queen Mary’s University of London.

As stated by Professor Reed, governments around the world are not imposing much regulation on the collection of data as citizens themselves are allowing companies, like the social media giants, to collect all their users personal information. There are general regulations that state we must have the option to control the data we let them record but more often than not people click accept on their smartphone as the just want to get on and use the service. They rarely read what data they are allowing the companies to collect or how much access they have given to their personal information.

Yet, when we speak to citizens the amount of data collected about them is certainly a concern. Maybe it is a generational thing? Will people of a younger generation care less than their grandparents about what is know about them? Technology that provides a service has a cost and for many applications the cost is our data. We allow the companies to collect data on our usage and then this data identifies our habits, trends and tendencies. We get bespoke advertising, designed and manipulated by our web browsing history. Amazon, Tesco and all the other companies provides us with recommendations based on what we have previously ordered. For the most we accept this as part of using the technology and don’t feel threatened by it.

What about the ‘Wee Guy’?

It’s not all about the big companies. Small start-ups have been emerging for years and will continue to do so. As said by one hacker – we can do amazing things with it, that giant companies perhaps wouldn’t think of or wouldn’t find immensely profitable but could be really useful for citizens & citizen groups’. To achieve this the data needs to be available. The large companies won’t give it away as they know the value of it and the potential for it to be so powerful. The government can play a role here too. They collect data from an enormous collection of Ministries, Departments and affiliated Agencies but still very little of it is available for the public. Small companies and private individuals have as much energy as the large companies to develop uses, identify potential and provide services to improve the quality of life for citizens.

So what can the government do? A good starting point is to get to grips with the size and availability of this data; identifying the concerns of the public, establishing where the balance between privacy and the benefits lies. If they keep the data hidden from the population then it will not be used to anywhere near it’s full potential. So, as stated, a framework is required to guide departments on how to store, make anonymous and present the data in a way that allows citizens and companies to use it, but sets out controls that reassure the public that their private information, their identities, health records, bank details, etc. are protected.

It is said that data could be the next oil – control and ownership will lead to wealth and power. This is possibly the strongest argument that the smartest thing we can do is to make anonymous data freely available.

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