Bridging the Gap Between Everyday Citizens and New Smart Cities Tech

At the recent Smart Cities New York conference, experts and officials grappled with helping residents understand the benefits of—and put their trust in—new urban technologies.

2019 Smart Cities New York conference highlights
The panel “Does Big Data Mean Better Living?” with (from left to right) moderator Story Bellows, partner, Cityfi; Adrienne Schmoeker, deputy chief analytics officer, City of New York; Liora Schechter, CIO, Tel Aviv Municipality; Ger Baron, CTO, City of Amsterdam Courtesy Metropolis / Zachary Edelson

The terms “smart city” or “responsive city” are bandied about often, but for those outside the tech and governance bubble, those words can be nebulous at best and dystopian at worst. For example, officials and corporations may tout the arrival of 5G-connected urban sensors, but most of us might wonder it would actually improve daily life. Would such a system collect new types of personal data? If so, would that data be secure? Building new technologies that make cities more livable and prosperous is important, but helping citizens trust and understand those technologies may be equally so. That tension was a major focus as the recent Smart Cities New York conference, held at Pier 36 in Manhattan. During one panel, one expert put it succinctly: “The fundamental question,” said André Corrêa d’Almeida, adjunct associate professor at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, “[is] how can we help mayors build innovation based on what exists without inflaming sci-fi fears…?”

To some extent, we might need to interrogate our understanding of how city government works. During the same panel, Jessie Lazarus, head of mobility business development at the 3D mapping company CARMERA, said that cities are moving from a “permitting-based system to an accountability-based system.” For example, CARMERA sources high-definition videos of a city’s streetscape from multiple vehicles, creating a hyper-accurate 3D map that can be used to track the impact of construction of traffic flows (among other applications). So, once a construction permit is issued (a process citizens understand well), the city can access hard data about where and when construction actually starts (and thereby hold the construction company accountable for violations).

Other cities take a more direct route to the hearts and minds of residents. At another panel, Liora Schechter, the chief information officer of Tel Aviv, described the city’s Digi-Tel Club system, which helps connect residents with public amenities. In exchange for supplying some personal information (such as age, hobbies, location, family status), residents get personalized SMS alerts for local events. For example, said Schechter, a young mother might get a text about a nearby children’s book reading at a nearby community center. The system simply leverages existing resources to improve quality of life and create value.“Everyone gets a value proposition based on [personal] characteristics,” Schechter explained.

Digi-Tel Club has been wildly successful: Schechter said that 70 percent of the city’s adult population is engaged in the club. However, transparency was essential to the system’s success: Users can receive a report on how their data has been used and the city never sells data to third parties. Even with such transparency, it might be hard to imagine 70 percent of adults in most American cities trusting their municipal governments with such a detailed data portrait of their life. Many cities are proactively changing that: Adrienne Schmoeker, deputy chief analytics officer at the City of New York, noted that each New York City agency has a privacy officer. While such steps are helpful to changing public perceptions, the process to gain public trust will be a long one. As Schmoeker said, “Do we trust the city? The private sector?…These are the questions being asked now [by the public].”

You may also enjoy “Cities Are Not Technology Problems: What Smart Cities Companies Get Wrong.”

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