Six Notes for Smart City Futures

Connectivity is the foundational promise of the smart city. Although cities across the globe define "smart" targets and aim to reach them in different ways, underlying the very idea of “smart” are arrays of interconnected objects generating data on everything from traffic flows and transactions to air quality and water use. Conventional brick-and-mortar cities are overlaid by sensors, computing devices, and software which automate both processes (like dispatching packages) and data collection.

“Look in your pocket,” exhorts author Anthony Townsend, “You already own a smart-city construction kit… You are no longer just a cog in a vast machine. You are part of the mind of the smart city itself. And that gives you power to shape the future.” 

Central though human agents are to the emergence of the smart city, we are hardly its only nodes. "Things" in the IoT can refer to heart monitoring implants in humans, biochip transponders on farm animals, electric clams in coastal waters, smartphones, pigeons equipped with telematics, GPS devices, and environmental sensors, home appliances with sensors using wi-fi for remote monitoring, and much more. Each is a mashup of hardware, software, data, and services. Connectivity brings such objects into conversation with one-another via the internet, and releases a constant flow of numerical data: frequencies, measurements, readings, locations, amounts, and more.

"It is getting difficult," says Geoffrey Bowker in Raw Data is an Oxymoron, "to walk the streets of a major city without having one's progress captured by some hidden gatekeeping device. It is getting difficult for trees to fall in forests without nonhuman observers… [Data is] stored in thousands of virtual locations [and as] that data is reworked, processed through an online algorithm or spat out to somewhere and somewhen to the computer screen of a vigilant operator, my possibilities for action are being shaped…"

And yet, as the authors of the 2014 volume Raw Data is an Oxymoron warn, our collective zeal for data must not become “a faith in their neutrality and autonomy.” “Data” is not the pre-analytical information we often take it to be, but itself already an interpretation. What environmental data the electric clamshell or the pigeon returns depends on what we send it to collect—and what we think it can tell us. Mental disorders and complex relationships can be represented by just their measurable effects—raising legitimate questions about the sufficiency of these pictures. For, as Tricia Wang adds, “for Big Data to be analyzable, it must use normalizing, standardizing, defining, clustering, all processes that strips the data set of context, meaning, and stories.”

The availability of data does not make research any the easier, but in fact throws up new challenges. We need to continue asking what it means to know a city through data, in what efforts data can support us and where it might fail us, and from where we might seek the best data to answer our most pressing questions and guide our actions.

We thus take connectivity to refer both to the infrastructure that allows things to generate data and the resulting frameworks for interpretation and action. Smart City aspirants will need to consider three key areas to realize the promise of Connectivity:

1. How will we determine the issues which can be addressed by data? How will we build up the infrastructure to generate the data we need? How will we assess the impact of these?

2. How will we ensure the openness of data – or allow for the data generated to be open to further (multiple, contested) interpretations? How will we enable data to guide action and empowerment?

3. With the open-ness of data come risks to privacy and security. Un-addressed, these can cause panic, harm, and a loss of trust in the very public processes which enable infrastructure-building and data generation. How will we ensure interoperability when we need it, and cordon data sharing at other times?

Smart city connectivity in most cities will emerge from what is already there.

While street lights may provide an already-established physical infrastructure to increase internet penetration, where would we begin to place sensors?

"An ideal beginning," say Ratti and Townsend, “is to leverage the growing array of smart personal devices we all wield and recruit people as the sensors of a city rather than relying only on formal systems embedded into infrastructure.”

“The traffic function on Google Maps is a good example. Instead of building a costly network of dedicated vehicle sensors along roadways, Google constantly polls a large network of anonymous volunteers whose mobile devices report their up-to-the-minute status, which reveals where traffic is flowing, slowed or stopped. The information is delivered to drivers via mobile mapping applications in various ways—as colored overlays indicating traffic speeds, as estimated driving times that account for delays or as a factor in determining alternative routes. These handy data allow users to see the circulatory network of the city in real time and to understand the constantly changing cost in time of getting from point A to point B.” (Ratti and Townsend, Scientific American, 2011)

Political will is needed,
but the infrastructure for connectivity
can also emerge from
strong public-private collaborations

Unsplash, Mika Ruusunen

Take the case of Estonia. Effectively a "disconnected" society in the early 2000s, two interlinked initiatives built the sort of backbone that smart cities would also need:

Look@World sought to bring Estonia's internet penetration on par with Finland. The initiative backed by a consortium of banking and telecom industries, as part of their CSR and because their services increasingly relied on internet use. 

X-Road then became a secure and transparent data exchange for residents, public institutions, and private companies. Information sharing enabled services which people could access with e-IDs—and do everything from filing taxes to viewing medical records, starting a company, transferring automobile titles and voting.

Crucially, individuals could also see who held and accessed their information: a strong transparency policy was key to trust-building and uptake.

E-governance means connecting people to open data sources and setting up springboards for innovation

Live Singapore! is an open platform for the collection, analysis, and distribution of realtime data that describe local urban dynamics—data generated by communications devices, microcontrollers and sensors in multiple networks. It creates the space for developers to build multiple applications to realize the value of this real-time data: giving "data back to the people who themselves generate it through their actions, allowing them to be more in sync with their environment as well as to taking decisions on the basis of information that reflect the actual state of their city." Examples include: apps that tell commuters how they can reach their homes fastest, how residents can reduce their neighborhood's energy consumption, or how to find a cab when a rainstorm is crossing the island.

People can also tell us what data they need—and determine how to use it

What does "well being" mean? P-Tracking or Participatory Tracking is a World Bank project in Tamil Nadu, India where researchers worked with local networks of women and self-help groups to

1, determine indicators for measuring well-being (such as: do you get to choose your clothing, who gets to decide when to visit your parents' home, and was your marriage consensual?) 


2, to visualize the results so that it is both accessible to local community users and a comprehensible framework for further action 

Communities can push to make more informed decisions—for more open data

Datos Abiertos, Transparencia y Acceso a la Inform (DATA) Uruguay is an open data civil society organization which partnered with the Uruguayan Ministry of Health to create A Tu Servicio: a website which provides easy-to-comprehend, searchable and visualized infographics based on open government health data.

The project is a collaboration between civil society, media, health care data providers, and government. It enables Uruguayan citizens to make data-driven, informed decisions on choosing health care providers—thereby cutting through corrupt and monopolizing practices of big healthcare providers.

As the tool came into wide use, DATA could request more information (such as the number of births by cesarean section) from the government: information not public by default. The community push for open data lead to the finding that local C-section rates were 44% beyond WHO recommendations.

It's not enough to say we're connected. We have to measure openness, accessibility, and impact.

Unsplash, Scott Webb

How accessible is the data released by governments to civil society, media, and citizens? The Global Open Data Index examines the claims of governments to openness, by measuring and benchmarking the openness of data around the world. It produces an annual peer-reviewed ranking of countries. 

The Open Data Barometer "aims to uncover the true prevalence and impact of open data initiatives around the world" via analyses of global trends, comparative data on countries and regions, contextual data, technical assessments and secondary indicators. The ODB ranks nations on readiness, implementation, and impact. 

Says Jan Gehl, "When I retired as professor, the mayor sent me a letter saying that the politicians wouldn't have dared to make Copenhagen the most livable city without our documentation of how people used the city. Being able to document how people use the city in exactly the same way that traffic engineers document how the traffic works in a city has been a very strong strategy. The minute you have the data—the base study—you can ask questions about how things are vs. how they should be, make comparisons with other cities, and start a process of change. Five or ten years later, you can measure improvements—that there are more people in public spaces and that they are more happier—which pleases the politicians and sometimes motivates them to work harder and faster than without the data. In Copenhagen, we found that the data over 40 years time was like strong medicine, influencing the way the city is planned and how they talk about its public life." 

Unsplash, Linh Nguyen

To draw out the contours of what the "smart city" is and could yet become, we offer six core notes by which the "expressive, cognitive, and imaginative possibilities" of the city in the age of data may be realized—six promises to guide the way to improved urban futures:

· Introduction
· Connectivity
· Inclusivity
· Responsivity
· Heritage
· Mobility
· Sustainability

Subsequent notes will be released in serialized form throughout November 2016. We invite you to join us in our quest to re-imagine the city and our shared urban futures through the data we collect.

Have an example or an idea of how data can be used to address urban dilemmas and build brighter urban futures? Share it with us on our UX Trendspotting page.

Report authors: Deepa S Reddy, Anand Vijayan, and Tushar Jain, for the Institute of Customer Experience at Human Factors International