Monthly Archives: February 2014

Citizen led smart cities

(Inspired by my morning at the SciDevNet event “Making It Count: Big Data, the Open Revolution, and Public Engagment”)

The ‘smart city’ is on the ascendant again. A decade after I first heard people talk about the ‘smartness’ of cities in terms of the access to IT infrastructure, I hear it again. It’s different this time. It’s not about individual access to information. It’s more about the individual, (or, the ‘citizen’) as a creator of data – which in the aggregate becomes valuable to the city, since it then knows all sorts of things about what people are doing, and also theoretically valuable to the ‘citizen’ if its made transparent. But how do cities get this data, and what are the power relationships behind it? Many people have been working on these questions, and some tricky conflicts have emerged.


By Ramon FVelasquez (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Ramon FVelasquez (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

For example, one way of getting lots of ‘smart city’ data without asking each individual to accept or reject Terms and Conditions of Use (those documents that specify how data is used but which  so few people read) is to  create data brokerage models for smart cities in which the city is the data curator. In other words, a city government or other entity could agree Terms and Conditions on behalf of citizens. What is the relationship between the city government or entity agreeing the T and Cs, and the ‘citizen’ as such? Under what circumstances is the ‘citizen’ (the individual, the resident, the taxpayer?) in conflict with ‘the city’?  Urban geography gives us lots of situations in which we can identify possible conflicts between ‘citizens’ and the city: for example the relationships between people without documentation and the cities in which they live. The people living in illegal dwellings, favelas or new developments just outside of city limits. The people contesting a council tax bill. The guy with the broken door on the Brandon Estate in Southwark who has been unable to get anyone to fix his door in the past three months.

People in cities aren’t automatically citizens, and they are not automatically inclined to enact their relationship to that place in a particular or acceptable way. The power relationships between them and the city could be quite contested. Even if you have the right to withdraw your data from collection by the local authority, are you likely to use that

Rights and Freedoms


By Joadl (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0-at (], via Wikimedia Commons

In fact there are various rights that we may wish to consider. Rights to be forgotten, rights to be anonymous, rights to speak and listen. We might also want to consider freedoms, of which some are ‘negative’ and some ‘positive’ (following Isiah Berlin). The freedom to do things that don’t negatively impinge on others is a kind of ‘positive’ liberty, where a negative liberty is the freedom from harassment and harm. Which kinds of freedom are enabled and constrained by ‘smart city’ data?


On my way back to my office at lunch, I passed a man asking for spare change in the street. I passed without giving spare change and felt a twinge of guilt. Then I asked myself what the chain of trust and relationships that linked me to that man might be, and how data might play a role.  I might assume that the man’s basic needs are fulfilled through services supported by my taxes, although given the current policy frames I might not be able to count on the validity of my assumption. So let us take a private sector example: through the donations I to homeless shelters, soup kitchens and crisis support for drug users I might assume that someone will help to keep him alive under the worst circumstances.


Which one of us has responsibilities as a ‘citizen’? Me, because I am a ‘good citizen’ who works at a job and pays taxes? Him, because maybe he is born here or in the EU and therefore has right to be here? Which one of us should be accountable for the data that is collected about us? Which one of us is generating more data and what kind of data is that? I have social media feeds that provide indication of ‘good citizen’ status – meaning, I exist for the companies that are collecting data about me. I have money to spend, and the information about where I might spend it is important enough for businesses to pay for. The man in the street, on the other hand, won’t have such easily monetizable traces. If his presence in the city creates data, it may well come in the form of police reports for loitering, or social work reports. Or perhaps nothing at all. Does that make him less of a participant in the life of the city? No – but it does remind us of which one of us has more control over the data that is generated.

Questions of data are increasingly questions of citizenship and voice. As such they need to consider not just the financial value of data to a city or a ‘citizen’ but the relationships of power and influence that characterize our lives. ‘Big data’ are not oil – they are pieces of information about people, and our politics and policy about smart cities should consider this from the start.