The past 10 years have resulted in an explosion of data collection. Private companies have developed technologies which have become just as important to daily life as any other necessary service. From Google maps being synonymous with directions, the use of Facebook as a verb, or Uber dropping off you and your 2am cheeseburger, the world has shifted. Our technology is smart and is only getting smarter. The question becomes, who actually gets smarter and what does that mean for the world? How wide should we be opening the door for companies to access data?
Open Data vs Public Data
Let’s first define the difference between Open Data and Public Data.
Public data is the entire pie of information that can or has been collected by governments, from some form of systems or survey. By itself, this data is rarely maintained, usually unstructured and its usage requirements are vague.
Open Data, however, is about 10% of that ENTIRE pie of Public Data. This data is curated and released to the public by the government. It is usually well structured, machine-readable, open licensed, and maintained.
Smart City Technology and Open Data
Smart City Technology has become a buzzword for responsive technology that municipalities use to collect and share data that improves the lives of citizens. In reality the basis of this technology has long been deployed in the private sector and it’s only been in the last few years that governments have caught on to the benefit of integrating these ideas into public services. Private Open Data collection has been used for over a decade by companies such as Uber, Amazon, Facebook and Google. As they use this data to build customer profiles they begin to know more about their consumer and their respective city than any local authority could hope to imagine. For example, Uber doesn’t just know the fastest route to get around the world’s biggest cities; every customer is primed for information that it marries traffic data, GPS data, satellite mapping and even crime data to give it an edge that traditional public transport simply can’t match.
But with cities becoming more integrated and more connected, granting private companies access to even more sensitive information can raise some concerns. To truly create an interconnected “Smart City” the effort will be monumental and requires a central team with a common agenda, a common goal, and a comprehensive data strategy so it can truly harness that information to make a responsive city. This means working strategically with private companies to build systems that can autonomously monitor and control the operations of a city.
Now the conversation is should private companies have access to the accumulated information from these systems? What are the benefits and the drawbacks to allowing this information to become Open Data?
The city of Toronto is currently facing this problem with its “Sidewalk Toronto” initiative. While the parameters of the project are (at present) undefined, it potentially includes adaptive traffic lights and self-driving shuttle cars. Adaptive traffic lights would be able to decelerate the speed of the light cycle if there is a slow pedestrian crossing the road, while self-driving shuttles would eliminate the need for street parking. But what impact is there if private companies have access to sensitive data which measures behaviour and patterns? This has been a concern for private watchdog groups monitoring the project. Besides the government, who should have access to the data and how will they use it?
Benefits and Drawbacks of Releasing Open Data
Potential Loss of Control
- The potential to lose control over confidential information, both on a personal level and a company level. This could lead to massive breaches of privacy for citizens and corporations at large.
- A reduction of environmental impact by simplifying the identification of its sources, and by aiding in the compliance of existing projects, services and infrastructure with solutions from the private sector. Just look at the initiatives being developed with Smart Agriculture Solutions.
Increased Control and Erasure of Privacy
- The obvious concern. In an area where all kinds of background data are being gathered and analyzed constantly, and one has no option to opt out, anonymity must be ensured. Misuse has to be prevented to avoid the compiling of information about an identifiable individual’s behaviour or personal history. Consent may need to be required to make particular datasets more broadly accessible.
Greater Public Engagement in Shaping Urban Environments
- Open data can allow for direct and simple communication. Whether it’s between urban developers, planners and the city dwellers, this can result in a faster, more efficient dialog that has immediate responses to problems and solutions that can be collaborative.
Potential for Corporate Hegemony
- Already just a handful of tech giants are present in the smart city space. If sizeable portions of the infrastructure is being developed and provided by singular companies, a power imbalance and great potential for exploitation exist, as does potential for ineffective solutions. This is definitely a concern with the cellular industry.
Ability to Recognize, Respond to, or Even Predict Changes in Real Time
- Access to this information allows for both the public and the private world to have their fingers on the pulse of data instantly. We see how this benefits us today with applications like Google maps being able to respond within minutes to changing traffic patterns or accidents.
Cost for Data to Become Machine Readable and Accessible Through Websites
- This one point isn’t as buzz-worthy but is a very valid concern. This information needs to be hosted, curated, and transcribed into machine readable information for search engines to find and for general use. This process will be a continuous cost to the taxpayer.
Greater Transparency and Integrity of the Public Sector and the Democratic Process
- Access to this data is a key to democracy. Citizens have a right to know how their cities function, how their tax money is being spent, and what information is being gathered by the government. When governments start limiting access to public information that is when disinformation can begin to run rampant and corruption can be left unchecked.
There’s no easy answer to the question of open data for Smart Cities, and there are legitimate arguments for the benefits and drawbacks of public access to this information. The Open Data initiative in London has been a great success as they are currently the global leader in this data and have projected that its open data initiatives for transit will save customers a combined annual £116 million.
What seems to be the most important concerns for this data is how secure and anonymous is the information, and is it the citizen or the industries who are benefiting from it? What is done with this data will be key in how Smart Cities will be shaped in years to come.
Want to learn more about how Smart Cities can be connected in a secure and efficient manner? Get started with Mesh Technology