As nearly every major city in the world is developing some form of “smartification” strategy, and vendors and service providers are lining up at the offices of urban decision-makers, a key question about the future of data in our cities is often overlooked: how shall urban data be governed?
Who makes decisions about data-related issues for the city as a whole, looking at the combined social, civil and business value and potential of data? Developing a value-based data policy requires much more than simply managing urban data or creating a digital dashboard for cities.
The Case for Regulation
Cities have always been information-rich environments, as human and machine-generated data were created as part of administrative and planning processes. It is the exponential growth of data generated through the connection of sensors and machines that raises questions about data ownership, control, access, and usage.
Data generated in the context of the Internet of Things (IoT) which revolves around increased machine-to-machine communication, cloud computing and networks of data-gathering sensors is currently not well regulated.
Both human-generated data and IoT data are only valuable if there are infrastructure and frameworks in place to analyze them. Much of the excitement about the smart city concept is about the availability and potential exploitation of urban data to better manage cities, support decision-making and create new services and products.
As cities are becoming more data-driven, and more and more data is routinely collected by humans, machines, and sensors, how shall city administrators create an infrastructure for managing the various types of data? What are the modes of urban governance in this environment?
These questions are rarely addressed in the mostly ICT-industry driven discourse about smart city concepts but are critical for the survival of cities as living spaces for people.
Danger of Techno-optimism
Smart city vendors and solution providers tend to believe that all urban problems can be solved with technology. However, most cities have genuine structural issues, such as housing shortage, environmental degradation, and economic inequality that won't be addressed by technology. Traffic congestion is a typical problem that persists, despite all kinds of intelligent transport systems solutions.
The prevalent view that a smart city "makes life better" for everyone is a somewhat techno-optimistical view and ignores the politics of technical choices.
Data governance is an emerging concern for city managers; only a few cities have developed a set of processes that ensures that critical data assets are formally managed throughout the city. Stockholm and Vienna recently appointed data governance experts to ensure that data can be trusted and that there is a system of accountability in place for any adverse event that happens due to low data quality or data failure. Urban data governance also needs to be inclusive and multi-stakeholder based.
Many smart city approaches see governance only within the framework of public-private partnerships between city administrators and ICT service providers. Technology vendors, service providers, and other industry players take an even narrower view and see governance primarily as a market for data analytics, business intelligence, and data visualization.
Is there a danger that our cities are being disrupted and digitally transformed by companies without citizens having a say?
Going Beyond Technology
The discussion around governance in a digital era must move beyond technological aspects. The Canadian Institute on Governance, a think tank, calls for "concepts for digital governance out of to an understanding of the disruptive nature of digital transformation as fundamentally recasting the role and responsibilities of governments, citizens, and other actors."
As cities are shaped by different actors, cultures, norms, and history, all too often it seems that the dominant smart city rhetoric decreases the space for public debate about possible future(s) of cities. For example, is there a space to debate smart-deviant cities and alternative urban development? Is smartificiation turning cities into look-a-like conformist tech-spaces?
Gartner, an ICT research company, says that the "democratization of data in cities will require robust governance platforms." If everyone in a city has access to data and knowledge relevant for insights, decision-making can be challenged and questions on who should be included or excluded arise.
For digitally advanced cities in Asia, how, where and when will questions about data governance be addressed?
These questions also raise concerns about the control of data collected by commercial companies, e.g., what are private bus companies allowed to do with data that they gather in the public space? Under which conditions can commercial companies sell their data for urban services and to whom? To what extent can cities collect and use data for surveillance? How can citizens control the way a city uses their data?
Time to Discuss is Now
The smart city is an urban imaginary combining the concept of a sustainable city with digital technologies. How these digital technologies are used in the social context of a city requires a sound framework for policies and governance.
Although smart city planning is still at an early stage, the time to think about data governance is now to avoid unintended consequences of technology choices cities make today.
Waltraut Ritter is an independent researcher and urban information scientist.