Kansas City & questions for the smart city

In her excellent IoT newsletter (subscribe here), Stacey Higginbotham of Stacey On IoT discusses privacy and the smart city. It’s a great, quick read in which Stacey takes Kansas City’s smart city plans and discusses them with KC’s Chief Innovation Officer Bob Bennett.

Since it touches on a quite a few of the core themes we touched on in our recent smart city policy recommendations for the German government, allow me to pull a few quotes from that newsletter:

The Wi-Fi is provided by Sprint, the lighting intelligence by Sensity (which also works with Simon Property Group) and the entire project is managed by Cisco. Bennett says that when he needs something, he tells Cisco and it finds a vendor to work with the city. His recommendation for others contemplating such a mammoth project? “Get yourself a large organization to be your umbrella,” he says.

This, to me, sounds like a huge problem waiting to manifest. While it might work in individual cases, the notion of using one company as the go to shop and clearing house for all of these things seems mind boggling to me. This kind of project-management-cum-decision-making is a core competence that should be in the hand of the city and no one else.

When asked how he defines a smart city, Bennett was practical. “A smart city is the ability to interact with and be proactive for our citizens through the use of data,” he says.

This is a pragmatic and useful, beautifully simple definition indeed. Well done!

To him, the core feature that helped turn KC into a smart city is the Wi-Fi network. Everything else stems from there. It also is the reason that local citizens embraced the project, despite the fact that it is collecting a lot of data on them.

There’s a lot going on in this statement. First, yes, wifi is a great backbone to build a smart city on. But also, the word “despite” stands out. I tend to agree in the assumption that most citizens won’t embrace the smart city because it collects data about them – you kinda have to sneak that part in like a bitter pill hidden in some tasty snack – the patients won’t refuse it if they don’t know about it. However, this approach is highly problematic in a democratic system.

What is less clear is how much of the data the city actually owns. Yes, it can provide tools and offer its data flows as a service, but the worry with government data is that officials may realize after it’s too late that if they want to switch to a different provider, they could lose access to their data.

I couldn’t agree more with Stacey on this: Unless there is a clear policy in place that makes sure that all data that is captured is available to use for the public, for free, there are bound to be problems. Even better of course if only the absolute minimum amount of data to render services is captured to begin with. As a general rule, data in the public space and collected on publicly funded infrastructure should not be available exclusively for commercial use of a private enterprise – especially if that enterprise is already paid by the municipality. Vendor lock-in particularly has to be curbed.

So when walking the streets of Kansas City know that when you are logging onto the local Wi-Fi, or merely pinging it if your phone’s Wi-Fi network is turned on, you’re helping support some really cool municipal services such as being able to dim streetlights if no one is around.

This, right there, is where things for me really go off into a dark direction (no pun intended): If there’s no wifi-enabled device pinging the city’s wifi network, does that really mean that no one is around? Or might there be people either very privacy conscious or simply too poor to carry a wifi-enabled device and we just switched the light off on them?

It’s really quite tricky to design and deliver data-driven public services in a way that degrades gracefully when things go wrong. Especially making sure to design with inclusivity in mind is essential: The very last thing we want as a society is to further shut out the poor and disenfranchised because they cannot join the hi-tech party.

You are also sharing some of your data with a marketing firm and potentially other providers. Is this the tradeoff to make cities smart?

That’s the key question, isn’t it? Without knowing more about the background it’s hard to make a final judgement on this, but it strikes me as odd to allow a marketing firm to access and process this data: What’s the public good angle here, the justification of why that particular organization should have access to this type of data?

We’re only at the very beginning of the evolution of smart or data-driven cities. The gains are great, the risks much greater: Let’s make sure to get smart cities right.

This means thinking deeply about implication and undesired side effects, designing for inclusion and diversity, and implementing a strong protection of citizens’ data and privacy on the policy level.

In related news, as you can tell I love Stacey’s newsletter and podcast. Make sure to check them out: They’re always insightful and absolutely worth the time.

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