big data

The future of cities lies in data

Author | Arantxa Herranz

The mantra in the technology sector is that data is the new oil. To justify this categorical statement, one simply has to realise that, in both cases, we have before us a new, powerful, extremely lucrative and rapidly growing market. A circumstance that is also generating distrust given the ensuing risk of the business being managed by just a few -but highly powerful- companies.

But oil no longer moves the world: information has become the commodity par excellence. Such is the value and importance of information, that experts claim that companies that are not based on data will simply cease to exist. And not just because large multinational companies have found their business and strength from extracting and analysing data, but rather because the explosion of technologies such as 5G, the Internet of Things, Big Data and analytics, are enabling us to obtain information from everything. And, as we know, information is power.

cities and big data

This can also be applied to cities, whose managers have always wanted to know certain indicators in order to adjust their policies for the benefit of the people. Issues such as the age of inhabitants in a neighbourhood, whether people live on their own most of the time, whether they have any special needs, how many pets live in households, the size and distribution of these households, whether residents work in other neighbourhoods, what transport systems they use and other demographic issues that are essential for the efficient management of the city.

Seven layers to govern all of them

In fact, the actual concept of Smart City has already given us an indication of this: smart cities shall be those that use the same technologies from all those that we consider to be smart, such as mobile phones.

A recent study conducted by PwC, Smart data governance: the key to realizing smart city potential, believes that successful smart cities are built on seven layers of data governance and management: categories, consent, collection, anonymization, storage, access and monetization.

This report indicates that, when it comes to using data, cities must be very clear on one thing: they must offer individuals an easy way to understand who will do what with their data, along with clear benefits to them for actively opting into an initiative. That is, trust is the basis that will support other actions. Cities must therefore guarantee the anonymity of the data they work with and these data must be stored securely.

cities and big data

Public-private collaboration

The PwC report also stresses that public-private collaboration is essential in order to successfully manage a modern city. The processing of a city’s data may be used by companies, enabling them to obtain a new source of income, as well as city councils, by allowing access to all this information. In other words, that the data and the collection and processing thereof, may be the ideal opportunity to foster innovation which, in turn, will lead to better services for citizens and local companies.

This public-private collaboration must also involve holding public (but thorough) consultations with the population and meetings with smart infrastructure providers and external data governance and privacy experts.

A smart city, not a big brother

In this regard, the consulting firm warns that citizens are increasingly concerned with privacy and confidentiality issues and they do not want to feel like they are living in a permanent big brother.

The installation of all sorts of sensors and monitoring tools must be carried out respecting peoples’ privacy, ensuring that cities can continue to have new and more reliable data but maintaining users’ trust.

cities and big data

“Top-notch data governance and management is not just a good idea for smart city projects. It may be the critical difference between an initiative that wins stakeholder support, and one that becomes mired in delays and controversy”, according to the PwC report.

One of the examples in which the controversy was significant and, yet, seems to have been managed correctly, is in the Canadian city of Toronto. There, many inhabitants were sceptical about some of the initiatives being implemented

The solution? To assign the primary responsibility of protecting citizens’ rights to a “trusted, nonpartisan, senior city official, in this case the municipal secretary. This, according to the PwC report, can guarantee that the governance strategy is implemented correctly to protect the privacy of citizens and ensure the public that their data are secure.

In other words, cities are aware that a considerable part of their future as cities lies in data management. Therefore, that management must be conducted in collaboration with lots of other entities and always bearing in mind the beneficiary of all those policies: citizens.

Images | Henry Marsh, Joey Lu, Chait Goli, Dennis Kummer