Smart cities run on data generated by the people who live in them. This raises privacy issues that smart city projects aren’t taking seriously enough.
Recently, I was involved in a discussion about how smart cities can access data from people’s apartments to improve energy efficiency. A key question in such a scenario is: how do you convince people to share their apartment data with the smart grid? Some smart city IoT companies said that the best way is simply to force building and apartment owners to grant access to data by making it a requirement in regulations and planning permissions.
This raised another question: isn’t it quite sensitive to collect IoT data from people’s homes? That didn’t bother these smart city companies, and they didn’t believe in the idea of offering good data and apps for people to use themselves – they believe that people will be motivated to adjust their habits to increase energy efficiency as long as the smart city possesses and controls their data.
Which brings us to a quite fundamental question: is it really the case that cities, authorities, or utility companies are better at adjusting things based on data from people’s homes than the people themselves? This is not just a privacy question – it is really about people’s liberties and how to motivate people to make the right decisions.
One missing element in smart city projects: people
I earlier wrote how smart city projects overlook the people in cities. A couple of weeks ago, Disruptive.Asia published an article noting that there’s more to smart cities than piling tech on top of them. Someone shared with me a good observation about smart city projects: how many times do the plans really include UX and UI for citizens? Often, they are smart tech stacks, while ordinary people in the city are just objects, not subjects, in plans or implementation.
That discussion reminded me about all these smart city problems. How many successful smart city projects have we really seen? There has been a lot of talk and money invested into smart city projects during the past 15 years. And even the companies that have worked with those projects admit that there are a lot of fundamental problems: data from different sources remains siloed from each other and cannot be utilized properly; many main targets of the projects are missed; the technology is the main focus; different parties fail to get their components and data work together; and it is too complex and slow to get proper interfaces between different systems.
Those are planning and execution problems. But there seems to be an even more fundamental problem. Stakeholders who plan smart city projects don’t take ordinary people seriously – they cannot understand the notion that if you empower people with data and applications, people can make the city smarter. Perhaps not coincidentally, many smart city solution providers don’t take privacy issues seriously, either.
In the discussion that I participated in, the privacy part usually revolves around the technical tools and solutions to comply with GDPR and other privacy regulations. However, it didn’t sound like they were interested in data privacy as such. Moreover, it seemed that they didn’t even grasp the problems. It should seem obvious that if authorities can see the actual data on how an individual behaves at home, how they use heating and air-conditioning devices, how many people in an apartment take a shower, and when people wake up and go to sleep, we can claim that there is a serious privacy issue here.
Some argue that we can work around this by using anonymized or aggregated data. However, it’s not that simple. In practice, it is very hard to anonymize data to the point that anyone who really wants to investigate it can’t identify whose data it is, or at least the small group to whom it most probably belongs. I have seen this in practice in data projects – although data anonymization sounds nice, it is very hard to do it properly. And anyway, aggregated data is not always sufficient for specific purposes.
Building human-centric smart cities
To be clear, I totally understand the noble goals of improving energy efficiency and making a building and living area more efficient and affordable. On the other hand, these targets can be achieved in many different ways, many of which can also guarantee privacy, especially if they offer smarter tools for people to live their lives. We already see this with simple things – e.g., people who have smart electricity meters that help them track and control electricity usage start making conscious decisions to save energy.
Today, we could easily offer services that empower people to collect their personal and home IoT data for themselves. Then, people could combine their user-generated and IoT data with public sources of smart city data. I earlier wrote that cities and companies do not always have to collect data from individuals; instead, individuals should be able to get data from companies and cities and then have applications that enable many smart city services. These projects could also be smaller and more concrete than megalithic smart city projects.
Data plays an incredibly important role in smart cities; that includes sensitive data from individuals and their homes. American internet giants are often blamed for collecting and utilizing people’s data in non-transparent and unethical ways. Smart city projects are not immune to this pressure – smart city projects rely on huge amounts of sensitive personal and user-generated data collected by municipal authorities and their business partners. That’s why municipal authorities should act as politically accountable fiduciaries of citizens, and they should protect the rights of those citizens. To do that effectively, they have to recognize that people are a central component of the smart city equation.
It is still hard to say how smart city projects can become successful. But it should be clear that the better way forward is not to focus only on technology and monitoring people. Smart cities should be places where the city residents are in the central role. That’s why smart city projects must be designed based on user-centric principles: smart cities should empower people to utilize their own data to live better lives, and such user-generated data should help people make better daily decisions.