Categorydigital rights

Data about me in my city

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This article is a few months old (and in German), but two points of view that I’ll just offer side by side as they pretty much sum up the state of play in smart cities these days.

For context, this is about a smart city partnership in which Huawei implement their technologies in Duisburg, a mid-sized German city with a population of about 0.5 million. The (apparently non-binding) partnership agreement includes Smart Government (administration), Smart Port Logistics, Smart Education (education & schools), Smart Infrastructure, 5G and broadband, Smart Home, and the urban internet of things.

Note: The quotes and paraphrases are roughly translated from the original German article.

Jan Weidenfeld from the Marcator Institute for China Studies:

“As a city administration, I’d be extremely cautious here.” China has a fundamentally different societal system, and a legal framework that means that every Chinese company, including Huawei, is required to open data streams to the communist party. (…)

Weidenfeld points out that 5 years ago, when deliberations about the project began, China was a different country than it is today. At both federal and state levels, the thinking about China has evolved. (…)

“Huawei Smart City is a large-scale societal surveillance system, out of which Duisburg buys the parts that are legally fitting – but this context mustn’t be left out when assessing the risks.”

Anja Kopka, media spokesperson for the city of Duisburg:

The city of Duisburg doesn’t see “conclusive evidence” regarding these security concerns.The data center meets all security requirements for Germany, and is certified as such. “Also, as a municipal administration we don’t have the capacity to reliably assess claims of this nature.” Should federal authorities whose competencies include assessing such issues provide clear action guidelines for dealing with Chinese partners in IT, then Duisburg will adapt accordingly.

The translation is a bit rough around the edges, but I think you’ll get the idea.

With infrastructure, when we see the damage it’s already too late

We have experts warning, but the warnings are of such a structural nature that they’re kinda of to big and obvious to prove. Predators will kill other animals to eat. ????

By the time abuse or any real issue can be proven, it’d be inherently to late to do anything about it. We have a small-ish city administration that knows perfectly well that they don’t have the capacity to do their due diligence, so they just take their partners’ word for it.

The third party here, of course, being a global enterprise with an operating base in a country that has a unique political and legal system that in many ways isn’t compatible with any notion of human rights, let alone data rights, that otherwise would be required in the European Union.

The asymetries in size and speed are vast

And it’s along multiple axes — imbalance of size and speed, and incompatibility of culture — that I think we see the most interesting, and most potentially devastating conflicts:

  • A giant corporation runs circles around a small-to-mid sized city. I think it’s fair to assume that only because of Chinese business etiquette was the CFO of one of Huawei’s business units even flown out to Duisburg to sign the initial memorandum of understanding with Duisburg’s mayor Sören Link. The size and power differential is so ridiculous that it might just as well have been the Head of Sales EMEA or some other mid-level manager that took that meeting. After all, for Chinese standards, a city of a population of a half-million wouldn’t even considered a third tier city. Talk about an uneven playing field.
  • The vast differences of (for lack of a better word, and broadly interpreted) culture in the sense of business realities and legal framework and strategic thinking between a large corporation with global ambitions and backed by a highly centralized authoritarian state on one side, and the day-to-day of a German town are overwhelming. So much so, that I don’t think that the mayor of Duisburg and his team are even aware of all the implicit assumptions and biases they bring to the table.

And it’s not an easy choice at some level: Someone comes in and offers much needed resources that you need and don’t have any chance to get, desperation might force you to make some sub-prime decisions. But this comes at a price — the question is just how bad that price will be over the long term.

I’m not convinced that any smart city of this traditional approach is worth implementing, or even might be worth implementing; probably not. But of all the players, the one backed by a non-democratic regime with a track record of mass surveillance and human rights violations is surely at the bottom of the list.

It’s all about the process

That’s why whenever I speak about smart cities (which I do quite frequently these days), I focus on laying better foundations: We can’t always start from scratch when considering a smart city project. We need a framework as a point of reference, and as a guideline, and it has to make sure to keep us aligned with our values.

Some aspects to take into account here are transparency, accountability, privacy and security (my mnemonic device is TAPS); a foundation based on human and digital rights; and participatory processes from day one.

And just to be very clear: Transparency is not enough. Transparency without accountability is nothing.

Please note that this blog post is based on a previously published item in my newsletter Connection Problem, to which you can sign up here.

What type of smart city do we want to live in?

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Warning: Trick question! The right questions should of course be: What type of city do we want to live in? What parts of our cities do we want to be smart, and in what ways?

That said, this is the talk of my talk for NEXT Conference 2019 in which I explore some basic principles for making sure that if we add so-called smart city technology to our public spaces, we’ll end up with desirable results.

What happens when one product in a family of connected products fails?

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About a year ago, we changed our home audio setup to “smart” speakers: We wanted to be able to stream directly from Spotify, as well we from our phones. We also wanted to avoid introducing yet another microphone into our living room. (The kitchen is, hands down, the only place where a voice assistant makes real sense to me personally. Your mileage may vary.) Preferably, there should be a line-in as well; I’m old school that way.

During my research I learned that the overlap of circles in this Venn diagram of speakers that are (a) connected (“smart”) for streaming, (b) have good sound and (c) don’t have a microphone is… very thin indeed.

The Venn diagram of speakers that are connected (“smart”), good and have no microphone

The Sonos range looked best to me; except for those pesky microphones. Our household is largely voice assistant free, minus the phones, where we just deactivated the assistants to whatever degree we could.

In the end, we settled for a set of Bang & Olufsen Beoplay speakers for living room and kitchen: Solid brand, good reputation. High end. Should do just fine — and it better, given the price tag!

This is just for context. I don’t want to turn this into a product review. But let’s just say that we ran into some issues with one of the speakers. These issues appeared to be software related. And while from the outside they looked like they should be easy to fix, it turned out the mechanisms to deliver the fixes were somewhat broken themselves.

Long story short: I’m now trying to return the speakers. Which made me realize that completely different rules apply than I’m used to. In Germany, where we are based, consumer protection laws are reasonably strong, so if something doesn’t work you can usually return it without too much hassle.

But with a set of connected speakers, we have an edge case. Or more accurately, a whole stack of edge cases.

  • The product still fulfills the basic function, just in a way that is so diminished and awkward to get to work because of a software issue that it’s too much to do on a daily basis, meaning the speakers simply stay off. It kinda works, kinda doesn’t. Certainly doesn’t work as advertised.
  • If one of these gets returned and I wanted to switch to a different brand, then I’d be stuck with the other speakers in the set, which are now expensive paperweights: Connected products work in families, or so-called platform ecosystems. One without the other just doesn’t make sense. It’s like the chain that breaks as soon as the weakest link breaks. So can I return all of them because there is a software issue with one of them?

This is going to be an interesting process, I’m afraid. Can we return the whole family and switch on over to a different make of speakers? Or are we stuck with an expensive set of speakers that while not quite broken, is very much unusable in our context?

If so, then at least I know never to buy connected speakers again. Rather, then I guess I’d recycle these and instead go back to a high end analog speaker set with some external streaming connector – knowing full well that that connector will be useless in a few years time but that the speakers and amp would be around and working flawlessly for 15-20 years, like my old ones did.

And that is the key insight here for our peers in the industry: If your product in this nascent field fails because of lacking quality management, then you leave scorched earth. Consumers aren’t going to trust your products any more, sure. But they are unlikely to trust anyone else’s, either.

The falling tide lowers all boats.

So let’s get not just the products right: In consumer IoT, all too often we think in families/ecosystems. So we have to consider long-term software updates (and mechanisms to deliver them, and fall-backs to those mechanisms…) as well as return policies in case something goes wrong with one of the products. And while we’re at it, we need to equally upgrade consumer protection regulation to deal with these issues of ecosystems and software updates.

This is the only way to ensure consumer trust. So we can reap the benefits of innovation without suffering all the externalized costs as well as unintended consequences of a job sloppily done.

(See also the ThingsCon Trustable Technology Mark, Better IoT, Tech Transformed.)

Update (Oct 2019): Turns out other companies also start recognizing that there’s a demand for mic-free speakers: Sonos just launched a speaker that they market specifically for it being mic-free, and it’s otherwise identical to one of their staples. (It’s called the One SL; I imagine the “SL” stands for “streamlined” or “stop listening” but I might be projecting.)

Developing better urban metrics for Smart Cities

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When we embed connected technologies — sensors, networks, etc. — into the public space*, we create connected public space. In industry parlance, this is called a Smart City. (I prefer “connected city”, but let’s put the terminology discussion on the back burner for now.) And data networks change the way we live.

* Note: Increasingly, the term “public space” has itself come under attack. In many cities, formerly public (as in publicly owned & governed) has been privatized, even if it’s still accessibly by the public, more or less. Think of a shopping mall, or the plazas that are sometimes attached to a shopping mall: You can walk in, but a mall cop might enforce some house rules that were written not by citizens but the corporation that owns the land. I find this not just highly problematic, I also recommend flat out rejecting that logic as a good way forward. Urban space — anything outside closed buildings, really — should, for the most part, be owned by the public, and even where for historical reasons it can’t be owned, it should at least be governed by the public. This means the rules should be the same in a park, a shopping mall-adjacent plaza, and the street; they should be enforced by (publicly employed) police rather than (privately employed) mall cops. Otherwise there’s no meaningful recourse for mistreatment, there’s no ownership, citizens are relegated from stakeholders to props/consumers.

Networks and data tend not to ease but to reinforce power dynamics, so we need to think hard about what type of Smart City we want to live in:

  • Do we want to allow people to get faster service for a fee (“Skip the line for $5”), or prefer everyone to enjoy the same level of service, independent of their income?
  • Do we want to increase the efficiency for 90% of the population through highly centralized services even if it means making the life of the other 10% much harder, or do we plan for a more resilient service delivery for all, even if it means the overall service delivery is a tad slower?
  • Do we want to cut short-term spending through privatization even if it means giving up control over infrastructure, or do we prioritize key infrastructure in our budgeting process so that the government can ensure quality control and service delivery in the long term, even if it costs more in the short term?

These are blunt examples, but I reckon you can tell where I’m going with this: I think democratic life requires public space and urban infrastructure to be available to all citizens and stakeholders, and to work well for all citizens. Pay for play should only apply for added non-essential services.

“Don’t confuse the data you can capture with the things you need to know!

In order to shape policies in this space meaningfully, we need to think about what the things are that we prioritize. Here, a brief warning is in place: the old management adage “you can’t manage what you don’t measure” is problematic to say the least. All too often we see organizations act on the things they can measure, even if these things are not necessarily meaningful but just easy to measure. Don’t confuse the data you can capture with the things you need to know!

What do we want to prioritize, and maybe even measure?

That said, what are the things we want to prioritize? And might it even be possible to measure them?

Here I don’t have final answers, just some pointers that I hope might lead us into the right direction. These are angles to be explored whenever we consider a new smart city project, at any scale — even, and maybe especially, for pilot projects! Let’s consider them promising starting points:

Participation
Has there been meaningful participation in the early feedback, framing, planning, governance processes? If feedback has been very limited and slow, what might the reasons be? Is it really lack of interest, or maybe the barrier to engagement was just too high? Were the documents to long, too full of jargon, to hard to access? (See Bianca Wylie’s thread on Sidewalk Labs’ 1.500+ page development plan.) Were the implications, the pros and cons, not laid out in an accessible way? For example, in Switzerland there’s a system in place that makes sure that in a referendum both sides have to agree on the language that explains pros and cons, so as to make sure both sides’ ideas are represented fairly and accessibly.

Sustainability
Would these changes significantly improve sustainability? The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SGD) framework might offer a robust starting point, even though we should probably aim higher given the political (and real!) climate.

Will it solve a real issue, improve the life for citizens?
Is this initiative going to solve a real issue and improve lives meaningfully? This is often going to be tricky to answer, but if there’s no really good reason to believe it’s going to make a meaningful positive impact then it’s probably not a good idea to pursue. The old editors’ mantra might come in handy: If in doubt, cut it out. There are obvious edge cases here: Sometimes, a pilot project is necessary to explore something truly new; in those cases, there must be a plausible, credible, convincing hypothesis in place that can be tested.

Are there safeguards in place to prevent things from getting worse than before if something doesn’t work as planned?
Unintended consequences are unavoidable in complex systems. But there are ways to mitigate risks, and to make sure that the fallback for a failed systems are not worse then the original status. If any project would be better while working perfectly but worse while failing, then that deserves some extra thought. If it works better for some groups but not for others, that’s usually a red flag, too.

When these basic goals are met, and only then, should we move on to more traditional measurements, the type that dominates the discourse today, like:

  • Will this save taxpayers’ money, and lead to more cost-effective service delivery?
  • Will this lead to more efficient service delivery?
  • Will this make urban management easier or more efficient for the administration?
  • Will this pave the way for future innovation?

These success factors / analytical lenses are not grand, impressive ideas: They are the bare minimum we should secure before engaging in anything more ambitious. Think of them as the plumbing infrastructure of the city: Largely unnoticed while everything works, but if it ever has hiccups, it’s really bad.

We should stick to basic procedural and impact driven questions first. We should incorporate the huge body of research findings from urban planners, sociologists, and political scientists rather than reinvent the wheel. And we should never, ever be just blinded by a shiny new technological solution to a complex social or societal issue.

Let’s learn to walk before we try to run.

How to plan & govern a smart city?

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Taking the publication of Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan plan for the smart city development at Toronto’s waterfront (“Toronto Tomorrow”) as an occasion to think out loud about smart cities in general, and smart city governance in particular, I took to Twitter the other day.

If you don’t want to read the whole thing there, here’s the gist: I did a close reading of a tiny (!) section of this giant data dump that is the 4 volume, 1.500+ page Sidewalk Labs plan. The section I picked was the one that John Lorinc highlighted in this excellent article — a couple of tables on page 222 of the last of these 4 volumes, in the section “Supplemental Tables”. This is the section that gets no love from the developers; it’s also the section that deals very explicitly with governance of this proposed development. So it’s pretty interesting. This, by the way, is also roughly my area of research of my Edgeryders fellowship.

On a personal note: It’s fascinating to me how prescient our speakers at Cognitive Cities Conference were back in 2011 – eight years is a long time in this space, and it feels like we invited exactly the right folks back then!

Smart cities & governance: A thorny relationship

In this close reading I focused on exactly that: What does governance mean in a so-called smart city context. What is it that’s being governed and how, and maybe most importantly, by whom?

Rather than re-hash the thread here, just a quick example to illustrate the kind of issues. Where this plan speaks of publicly accessible spaces and decision-making taking into account community input, I argue that we need public spaces and full citizens rights. Defaults matter, and in cities we need the default to be public space and citizens to wield the final decision-making power over their environment. Not even the most benign or innovative company or other non-public entity is an adequate replacement for a democratically elected administration/government, and any but the worst governments — cumbersome as a government might be in some cases — is better than the alternatives.

My arguments didn’t go unnoticed, either. Canadian newspaper The Star picked up my thread on the thorny issue of governance and put it in context of other experts critical of privatizing the urban space; the few others I know from the thread make me think I’m in good company there.

What’s a smart city, anyway?

As a quick, but worthwhile diversion I highly recommend the paper Smart cities as corporate storytelling (Ola Söderström, Till Paasche, Francisco Klauser, published in City vol. 18 (2014) issue 3). In it, the authors trace not just the origin of the term smart cities but also the deliberate framing of the term that serves mostly the vendors of technologies and services in this space, in efficient and highly predictable ways. They base their analysis on IBM’s Smarter City campaign (highlights mine):

”this story is to a large extent propelled by attempts to create an ‘obligatory passage point’ (…) in the transformation of cities into ‘smart’ ones. In other words it is conceived to channel urban development strategies through the technological solutions of IT companies.

These stories are important and powerful:

Stories are important because they provide actors involved in planning with an understanding of what the problem they have to solve is (…). More specifically, they play a central role in planning because they “can be powerful agents or aids in the service of change, as shapers of a new imagination of alternatives.” (….) stories are the very stuff of planning, which, fundamentally, is persuasive and constitutive storytelling about the future.” (…)

The underlying logic is that of a purely data-driven, almost mechanical model of urban management that is overly simplistic and neither political, nor does it require expert matters. This logic is inherently faulty. Essentially, it disposes with the messiness that humans and all their pesky complex socio-cultural issues.

In this approach, cities are no longer made of different – and to a large extent incommensurable – socio-technical worlds (education, business, safety and the like) but as data within systemic processes. (…) As a result, the analysis of these ‘urban themes’ no longer seem to require thematic experts familiar with the specifics of a ‘field’ but only data- mining, data interconnectedness and software-based analysis.

So: Governance poor, underlying logic poor. What could possibly go wrong.

A better way to approach smart city planning

In order to think better, more productively about how to approach smart cities, we need to step back and look at the bigger picture.

If you follow my tweets or my newsletter, you’ll have encountered the Vision for a Shared Digital Europe before. It’s a proposed alternative for anything digital in the EU that would, if adopted, replace the EU’s Digital Single Market (DSM). Where the EU thinks about the internet, it’s through this lens of the DSM — the lens of markets first and foremost. the Vision for a Shared Digital Europe (SDE) however proposes to replace this logic of market first through 4 alternative pillars:

  • Cultivate the Commons
  • Decentralize infrastructure
  • Enable self-determination
  • Empower public institutions

Image: Vision for a Shared Digital Europe (shared-digital.eu)

I think these 4 pillars should hold up pretty well in the smart city planning context. Please note just how different this vision is from what Sidewalk Labs (and the many other smart city vendors) propose:

  • Instead of publicly available spaces we would see true commons, including but not limited to space.
  • Instead of centralized data collection, we might see decentralization, meaning a broader, deeper ecosystem of offerings and more resilience (as opposed to just more efficiency).
  • Instead of being solicited for “community input”, citizens would actively shape and decide over their future.
  • And finally, instead of working around (or with, to a degree) public administrations, a smart city after this school of thought would double down on public institutions and give them a strong mandate, sufficient funding, an in-house capacity to match the industry’s.

It would make for a better, more democratic and more resilient city.

So I just want to put this out there. And if you’d like to explore this further together, please don’t hesitate to ping me.

A list of resources for ethical, responsible, and public interest tech development

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For an upcoming day of teaching I started compiling a list of resources relevant for the ethical, responsible development of tech, especially public interest tech. This list is very much incomplete, a starting point.

(For disclosure’s sake, I should add that I’ve started lists like this before: I’ll try, but cannot promise, to be maintaining this one. Just assume it’s a snapshot, useful primarily in the now and as an archive for future reference.)

I also can take only very partial credit for it since I asked Twitter for input. I love Twitter for this kind of stuff: Ask, and help shall be provided. My Twitter is a highly curated feed of smart, helpful people. (I understand that for many people Twitter feels very, very different. My experience is privileged that way.) A big thank you in particular to Sebastian Deterding, Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, Dr. Laura James, Iskander Smit, and to others I won’t name because they replied via DM and this might have been a privacy-related decision. You know who you are – thank you!

Here are a bunch of excellent starting points to dig deeper, ranging from books to academic papers to events to projects to full blown reading lists. This list covers a lot of ground. You can’t really go wrong here, but choose wisely.

Projects & papers:

Organizations:

Books:

  • Everyware (Greenfield)
  • The Epic Struggle of the Internet of Things (Sterling)
  • Weapons of Math Destruction (O’Neil)
  • Smart Cities (Townsend)
  • Future Ethics (Bowles)

Libraries, reading lists & lists of lists: