Who owns the smart city?

People are working hard on the ‘internet of everything’, which is actually more than just a collection of connected ’things’. The internet of everything results in massive data production, in which larger cities take the biggest share. In cities, there are lots of people and businesses, resulting in maximum connectivity. The internet of things can be seen as the driver for smart cities. Does that include smart citizens, too? Or are other stakes more important?

smart cityThe year 2013 was announced as the Year of Things by Technology Review. In the same year, technologists predicted that by 2020 there would be at least 25 billion connected devices. However, in order to realize (in order to fulfill that prediction) that number, some/a lot of work still has to be done. We would have to connect 200 new devices every second as from January 2016.

As from this decade, fifty per cent of the world’s population live in cities. In almost every region, urbanization is increasing: the younger generations are leaving their villages and heading for a city life. In order to cope with the growing population in cities, technology will certainly be useful. Both politicians and tech fans are of the opinion that the internet of things is a promising revolution. Data is seen as part of the solution for the challenge of crowded cities. By using smart phones and connected cars, people will automatically change into data collectors. Companies, too, are aware of the opportunities because they offer services for data collection and storage, e.g. connectivity, data centers, sensors, or data processing, e.g. data analytics software.

Companies are crazy about data

In Eindhoven, a technology hub in the Netherlands, IT service provider Atos is working together with the City Council on the City Pulse Program. One of their projects is about avoiding incidences in public spaces by making use of predictive data analytics. Google and TomTom are involved in a project with the City of Amsterdam, in which a system is being developed for dynamic route and parking advice for drivers. Telecom operators are interested in smart cities as well. They supply infrastructure and connectivity. During the coming years, their current 4G mobile networks will gradually migrate towards 5G, which will lead to a significant increase of mobile internet capacity and speed. KPN, a leading Dutch operator, is rolling out LoRa in Amsterdam, a data network developed specifically for the internet of things. Meanwhile, the penetration of fiber optic networks is also increasing.

The power of data in a smart city

Projects such as these show how cities are heading towards the internet of everything of which the main ingredients are sensors, data, connectivity and software. What are the implications of the internet of things for the information society and for civil rights? Ten years ago, the social web, also called ‘web 2.0’, was presented as a stimulus for democracy. During the past ten years, the (information) consumer has indeed gained a lot of power. Even in third world countries, mobile connections have contributed to increased transparency in local and international trade. Internet and social media, in particular, are acknowledged as being important for the free flow of information.

However, increased connectivity and more data does not mean that transparency is increasing at the same rate. For example, universities and research institutions are frequently caught in manipulating or abusing data. Pharmaceuticals have a bad reputation when it comes to the selective use of data for proving the effectiveness of new drugs. In some cases, climate experts and social scientists are criticized for claiming scientific relationships that do not exist. Even car manufacturers present test results on emissions that have proved to be false. So, when governments claim that they can make their cities smarter by putting more focus on the internet of things, who is getting smarter first? And what happens to a city if it signs a deal with a tech company that results in either a technology lock-in or a no opt-out scenario? For example, it is impossible to walk the streets of Amsterdam without being recorded on CCTV. During the past years, it has become clear that governments and secret services have crossed the line by recording and storing communication and internet data beyond, probably, what is acceptable. More data does not automatically imply a better life.

Knowledge gap

One of the most important questions related to smart cities is what governments are allowed to do with smart city data, and who owns it. Amsterdam’s Chief Technology Officer, Ger Baron, is one of the many experts warning for a knowledge gap with respect to data. Many people do not know the difference between data, information and knowledge. This gap exists even at boardroom level. Research carried out by accountancy firm Grant Thornton, in more than 1.800 companies worldwide, shows that corporate management teams are lacking technological expertise. That should worry us, because the potential benefits of a connected society are enormous, but at the same time data is the fuel for value creation, as long as you have access to the right software. Are we all aware of the powerful position companies are attaining as a result of gaining access to data on individuals?

How to sell information twice

The power of information can be illustrated by a simple example. Universities are doing research that is generally funded by governments, i.e. the tax payer. Research findings are published in scientific journals; publishers sell this information to universities on a subscription base; universities, or more specifically, employees, research groups and students, are paying twice for information that is actually produced by them. Companies and citizens, however, do not have access to this information that has been funded by tax payers. While companies in the Western world are able to sponsor universities in order to get access to academic resources, third world countries are finding it difficult even to get access to technical and scientific knowledge. Improving access to knowledge, an imperative for economic and social development, is a slow process and the Open Access Movement has been working on this challenge for decades now.

Conscious design

Should a smart city cooperate with tech companies? TomTom and Google sell anonymous traffic data to the City of Amsterdam, to improve traffic flow. LinkedIn does the same with labor market information to support the City’s labor market strategy. IBM, Oracle, Siemens, Palantir, Cisco, Microsoft, and Philips all provide data services to cities. A recent article in the Dutch newspaper, NRC Handelsblad, reported that the list of such companies is growing. ‘Data enriched cities’ are of interest to Google, a company that has a mission ‘to organize, make accessible and usable all information in the world’. Google has been working on this mission for many years, as can be seen in the number of services offered: Google Scholar, Google Shopping, Google Streetview, Google Maps, Google Car, Google Earth and Google Gmail. These and other services are widely accepted and used by society, which makes it easy to forget that ‘data equals capital’.

To what extent is a smart city the result of a well thought out, conscious design? Is it growing autonomously or are policy makers considering critically goals, resources and societal impact? When it comes to technology, the ‘function creep’ phenomenon should at least be taken into consideration. What happens if collected data is used for other purposes than originally intended? Decisions on collection and application of data that are made now – including the decisions that have an impact on privacy – do not offer any guarantees for the future.

When data becomes creepy

These decisions should, therefore, be considered as no more than temporary intentions. When elections affect the political focus of local government, the new decision makers are in a position to change the purposes for using data that has been collected earlier. Firstly, there is always an opportunity to create new combinations of data, and, secondly, once data has been collected and stored, it cannot be ‘uncollected’. From an historic perspective, for example, the Dutch government has become an expert on data ‘function creep’. The Dutch population register, initiated by Napoleon, was used during the Second World War by the German occupational forces to retrieve information on the Jewish people in the Netherlands. Data can never be completely and utterly anonymous. Even anonymous data can be made traceable when combined with sufficient additional data sets.

I want to be a smart citizen

Moreover, it is unclear whether local politicians are aware of all the facets/aspects of a smart city. In March 2016, the City of Amsterdam was criticized by an internal audit committee for breaking privacy rules and regulations. Personal data on citizens was not safe in the hands of the Municipality. They reported that there was no effective privacy policy, the responsibilities and duties of the civil servants were not formalized, and audits on privacy and data security were not carried out. Unauthorized clerks, as well as software supplier employees, could easily get access to personal and medical data of citizens. This is bad news when the CTO of Amsterdam states that ‘city hall is dealing with a lack of technology knowledge’; even more so because the Dutch government is working on large scale decentralization. The responsibilities of the Dutch local government are increasing rapidly. It is therefore crystal clear that we should listen to Dirk Helbing when he says ‘we’re at a turning point when it comes to data’. Will a smart city ultimately turn us into smart citizens?


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