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Looking Back on Demystifying the Smart City

A Year of Research on the Trade-Off Between Citizen Quality of Life and Data-Engagement

Photo by Bernard Hermant on Unsplash

During the last few months, the world experienced how COVID-19 spread from continent to continent and how the invisible and intangible phenomenon caused fear and subsequently: regulations. When the virus broke out, experts paid close attention to its development and informed the public on how to protect themselves and others. Social distancing, walking routes, perspex dividers, and face masks. These interventions were installed to prevent the public from contracting the disease. Currently about 30 countries around the world have developed and deployed their own COVID-19 smartphone applications. These applications use Bluetooth to keep track of passers-by. When a user has tested positive on the infectious disease, the application then alarms the people that have recently been in close range. It sounds like a nifty and elegant solution based on widely-accessible technologies. However, from the moment the Dutch Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport (VWS) announced they were considering applying this technology, the insurmountable debate regarding privacy flared up. This led to the public evaluation of the concept of Privacy by Design in our ubiquitous technologies.

This article will not be about the current events regarding the pandemic, but rather on the importance of technological transparency. The Dutch COVID-19 app “CoronaMelder” is relatively explicit in how it works and aims to demystify its own way of working. Demystifying the technologies that monitor and enrich our daily lives is a topic we have researched over the course of 2019. Under the project-title “Demystifying the Smart City”, Sensor Lab investigated the trade-off between citizen quality of life and data-engagement. Over the last decade developments in digital culture have radically transformed the practice of design. We have witnessed how data has become the oil for knowledge production, how algorithms and platforms have changed the consumption of culture, and how everyday objects have become connected to the internet. The research resulted in the publication of several articles, the development of prototypes as offered solutions, and a presentation of these works in the form of a fictional convenience store. During the research, Sensor Lab opened its doors to the public in the form of meet-ups: events where knowledge was shared by experts on these topics. In this article we look back on the research and summarize the results.

Background

Utrecht is undergoing an invisible transformation towards becoming a smart city and brings its inhabitants more efficiency, safety and new services. However, this technological revolution raises concerns on data-transparency and -ownership. The research project was kicked off by co-founder of Sensor Lab, Gert Franke’s post on The Invisible Revolution. In this article, Gert argued that society will go online and that the merge between the physical and the digital world should be made more tangible. This is also where Gert emphasized the need for a new, more contemporary, governance.

At the same time a series of four articles was published, elaborating on how a Privacy Label could function both online and offline. In this series Sensor Lab (together with Jeremy Raider during his internship) worked on pinpointing the problem, defining their privacy ranking system, finding a way to communicate privacy visually, and catching its real-world complications. This created a foundation that allowed both a research context and experimental design that would benefit the interests of the public, the industry and municipalities.

Privacy Label for both online and offline usage, by CLEVERºFRANKE

Meet-ups

The meet-ups were an opportunity to mediate the dialogue between professionals and the industry. Relevant topics such as artificial intelligence, creative computing, and autonomy in the smart city were discussed. For instance: to what extent can we let the user control AI? During the first meet-up speakers shared their knowledge on the creative use of artificial intelligence: a television that proposes you what to watch, a weather chart that shows how weather was perceived by people, a board game using deep learning algorithms, and more. Later in the year, a second meet-up was organized exploring the unusual phenomena that blossom when language and computers meet. “Robot Poetry & Neural Narratives” was an evening where established artists presented their own approach to let machines enhance their creativity. At the third and final meet-up, Sensor Lab initiated the discussion on the interaction between artist and the smart city. Speakers presented parts of their work that look into the question of artistic engagement via smart technologies in cities. The second and third meet-up were organized together with Creative Coding Utrecht.

Meet-up on Robot Poetry & Neural Narratives, at Sensor Lab

Data Walk

Raising awareness on the presence of ubiquitous technologies is a core-concept of the research project. That is why, we hosted a ‘Data Walk’ through Utrecht. Which sensors and technologies in public space are collecting data and how can we, as citizens, actively participate or intervene in this process? The Data Walk epitomized a creative approach to raise awareness on the topic of data collection.

Round Table Discussion

Halfway through the year, an assembly took place between participants from academia, industry and the arts in the form of a round table discussion. A city’s ‘Smart City agenda’ can concern many different aspects like mobility, sustainability, smart homes, and open data. Quite often, however, the residents are missing in those agendas. Cities become more and more datafied, but how transparent are they really to their residents? The overarching questions of the evening revolved around the role artists play in the Smart City and how art can allow us to engage with the Smart City.

Round Table Discussion about the role of the digital artists in the Smart City, at Sensor Lab

Research

The main goal of this research project was to raise awareness on the comprehensive term ‘Smart City’ in order to encourage the debate between the public, municipalities and the industry. In this debate the stakeholders of the information- and communication-ecosystem could then decide together how this entity should be applied and governed. During our meet-ups we mostly facilitated this discussion for the industry. That is why, it does not come as a surprise that one of the conclusions from the Round Table Discussion was that residents are often overlooked in this debate. So we conducted an extensive research in which we shifted the perspective towards residents. We conducted interviews and surveys to reveal what the residents of Utrecht think about the Smart City and how they want to participate in its developments. By juxtaposing the opinions of the municipality with that of citizens on the Smart City Utrecht, we revealed insights into how the future Smart City plans can be more participative and effective. This research was conducted in collaboration with Marie-Luise Schlander during her internship at Sensor Lab.

By conducting interviews and a survey among 100 residents of Utrecht, we formed a better understanding of how residents perceive these omnipresent technologies in their living environment. Another research subject was on how these residents would like to be involved in their city. To highlight some of the most striking results of this research:

  • The majority of respondents (66%) was not aware of the term “Smart City”; some (24%) have heard of the term before and only a few (10%) said they know what it entails.
  • Concerning data collection in the city, more than half (62%) stated their interest in having insights into the data the municipality is collecting. The survey results revealed that even though few residents were aware of smart technologies, a majority of them would like to learn more. Therefore, more and better information about the use of smart technologies could motivate residents to participate in city developments.

Prototypes

Ultimately, we developed a series of applied works (5 in total) that aims to empower residents of the Smart City, providing them with transparency on and autonomy over their data-engagement.

1. Privacy Label

The Privacy Label was briefly introduced earlier in this post. You should think of it as a quality mark, much like the ones you see on your groceries. Products and services you use will be provided with this label and thereby graded for its privacy-friendliness. The label shows insights based on three pillars: data-collection, -usage and -control. A company, whether it is a digital service like Spotify or a physical space such as your local grocery store, could be evaluated through a list of requirements compiled by us. This ranking system, ‘A’ being the best to ‘F’ as the worst, allows clients to easily grasp how different companies treat their users’ personal information.

Privacy Label: a quality mark ranking services on their privacy-friendliness, by CLEVER°FRANKE

The design of the privacy label was based on a selection of powerful contemporary communication styles aimed to provide awareness. The design must be as simple as possible, avoid further complicating the problem, provide a meaningful value and be suited for both online and offline spaces. The concept behind the visual design is that at the centre of the circle is our personal information and the more points earned by the entity, the more rings there are to ‘protect’ this information. The Privacy Label won the Gold Jury Prize at the European Design Awards.

2. Sensor Map

During the Data Walk we found it worrisome that much of the data-harvesting technologies in our environments are rather invisible. It is quite often unclear what kind of data is gathered, by whom, and for what purpose. To give a glimpse of the scale of the technology, we made a map showing all the sensors in Utrecht. This map, created by Loes Sloëtjes during her internship at Sensor Lab, was printed and handed out as a foldable map, providing a comprehensive overview on the context in which these sensors are installed.

Sensor Map: a map showing all data-harvesting technologies in the city of Utrecht, by Loes Sloëtjes (during her internship at Sensor lab)

3. Sensor Compass

The Sensor Map provides an understanding of the scale on which these data-harvesting technologies operate, but it does not yet empower citizens in their day-to-day life. A technology that works on a hyperlocal and individual level would be better suited. This compass application helps you find your destination leading you through the most privacy-friendly route. The application on your smartwatch knows all the locations of data-monitoring devices in your city. When you consult it for a destination it will navigate you towards that location bypassing the privacy-unfriendly technologies placed in your surroundings.

Sensor Compass: Smartwatch application that helps you bypass data-exploitation, by Jooyoung Park (during her internship at Sensor Lab)

4. Geiger-Counter Necklace

During your daily commute through your city you are likely to pass by cameras, noise sensors, Wi-Fi trackers and parking sensors. One of the prototypes is a pendant necklace that shows you how much you have been exposed to these sensors monitoring your presence and activity. It is designed to work alongside with the other prototypes; when you feel like you have been exposed to these technologies too much, consult the Sensor Compass to help you find a more privacy-friendly route to your destination.

5. Navigation App

At the end of your day you might want to reflect on your presence in this information-ecosystem in retrospect. This app shows you the route you have walked and the sensors on that route. It provides you with insight on how much distance you have covered while being tracked by smart city-technologies. The app will also show whether these sensors were placed by either the municipality or by a private company and for what purpose they are harvesting information. If you feel uncomfortable being monitored, the app lets you file a request not to be tracked.

Navigation app showing what sensors have registered you and what data they may have collected, by Jooyoung Park.

Presentation

We felt confident about the results of this research program and wanted to share our findings and suggestions for possible solutions to the public. In the last months of 2019, city district Leidsche Rijn in Utrecht was subject to Cirque du Data. This Data Circus researched the wishes and needs of local residents on the digital transformation of their living environment through discussions and workshops. At Cirque du Data, local residents learned about datafication from different perspectives. Art installations and performances were exhibited, along with Sensor Lab’s Smart Market. The Smart Market, presented as a future convenience store of the Smart City, displays its product range in technologies that empower you as a citizen with transparency on and autonomy over your data-engagement.

The Sensor Lab Smart Market, exhibited on Cirque Du Data (RAUM Utrecht), photos by Thijs Rooimans

Conclusion

Spending a year of intertwined collaboration with the industry, the municipality, and the public gave us all a better understanding of this complex subject. But more important than that: it offered a platform for education, discussion, and reflection. The digital transformation currently active in cities offers a lot of great opportunities. The Smart City can be a place where societal values such as sustainability, inclusiveness, and mobility are pursued. However, as we emphasized through our survey, this must be done in closer collaboration with its residents. Reflecting on our year-long project in the time of corona regulations and the concerns it created make it especially pressing that there should be more debates between different stakeholders. This brings new perspectives to empower residents over the technological solutions.

For more information please contact Gert Franke via gert@sensorlab.nl. We’re also happy to share our knowledge.

This research program is supported by the Creative Industries Fund NL.

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Daan Rongen

Daan Rongen

Creative Technologist • University of Arts London