‘Seeing more than you think’: a ‘data walk’ in the smart city

Smart cities, ostensibly, are all about citizen inclusion. But just how data-aware are city-users and makers? Researchers at the Centre for Big Open Linked Data (BOLD) Cities look at the social issue of ubiquitous urban digitization and datafication.

It has become commonplace in smart cities discussions to say that it is imperative to include citizen perspectives and interests in policy and planning. Issues of privacy and data-ownership come to mind immediately when talking about such citizen perspectives, and they are indeed a key matter in smart city discourse.

Beyond such concerns, however, when smart city scholars or planners plea to include citizen perspectives, it is unclear who exactly is meant by ‘citizen’. Similarly, this raises the question what is a ‘perspective’ or ‘interest’, and what might be the different or opposing interests of people in cities. This incoherence is reflected in the plethora of terms that are used to describe smart city projects aimed at including citizens. Think of quadruple helix; inclusive design, value-sensitive design or participatory design; co-creation; urban living labs; hackathons or data boot camps.

Nevertheless, a 2016 survey by the British Institution of Engineering and Technology suggests that ‘smart city’ remains a concept that ordinary people neither know about nor recognize as possibly beneficial. Less than one in five members of the British public has heard of the term ‘smart city’.

The IET concludes, therefore, that it is time to involve the people in smart city design. But which people exactly? And why precisely? What are good methods for engagement? And when is such involvement considered satisfactory or even successful?

Being BOLD: embodying the smart city

The research of the Centre for Big Open and Linked Data Cities (BOLD) is aimed at examining these questions in their theoretical – and empirical – dimensions. We have developed our research agenda from a desire to enhance the civic and social uses of big, open and linked data in cities and leave the smart commercial or entrepreneurial futures to others.

Our work ties into recent debates about ‘digital rights to the city’. We take ‘the people’ as including city users and city civil servants. Admittedly, these are a highly diverse collection of groups and individuals with different social and cultural affiliations, different levels of data and digital awareness and different ties to the city. It is highly likely that they will have conflicting interests between and among them. Our research is aimed at exploring, developing and testing forms of participation and engagement that entail the recognition and resolution of these contrasting interests. This contributes to smart cities being SHARED (Sustainable, Harmonious, Affective, Relevant, Empowering and Diverse), a concept that we developed and that guides our work.

data walk SHARED principle: the Centre for BOLD Cities

The ‘data walk’

At BOLD Cities, we conduct various forms of action research, using multidisciplinary and multimethod approaches and methods. One such method, following the work of Alison Powell of the London School of Economics, is the ‘data walk’ (others, include data dialogues and gamification). In the past year, we have taken 14 groups of city users and civil servants (some 80 people altogether) on short walks through different parts of Rotterdam and The Hague in The Netherlands.

With smart city developments being mostly invisible – as infrastructures tend to be in the ground and data float through the ether – a first imperative for engagement is to make people literally see what is going on. When walking we therefore ask people to consider four questions: Where do you see data? What happens with it? Who owns it? Would you like to have some say about it?

We participate as moderators rather than as experts, asking questions and making notes, but seldom providing answers as to where data is and how it is used. As a method, this seems to work well, provided that the group is not too big (maximum of five) and that participants have some minimum of interest in their city and the purpose of the walk. When we walked with students for a teaching assignment, we noticed boredom setting in quickly, but when we walked with civil servants of municipalities, enthusiasm and appreciation were significant. There is always pressure from the groups to put us, as tour guides, in the position of experts able to provide information and judgment. We try to resist this because it would turn the group dynamic into a teacher-pupil or expert-audience relation. This would run counter to our ideas about raising awareness and empowerment – a social process that supports people gaining control of their environment.

While we are in the middle of walking and analysing, we think we have found some important preliminary tendencies in the discussions among our groups that we want to share, as matters for discussion, rather than as solid outcomes.

‘Seeing’ data

As for seeing the smart city and its data flows, public transport and its data usage was widely recognized as were paid parking, free-WiFi signs and CCTV cameras. Note, however, that some of our participants did not recognize the modern form of CCTV cameras looking like a black ceiling lamp. Walking past shops and bars, in each group somebody would come up with a remark about data usage, both to control stock and to monitor customer interactions. Inevitably, the smart phone was mentioned as a data hub, either spontaneously or because somebody using a phone would come by.

People also point at all kinds of antenna’s, masts and dishes on roofs. But it was mostly unclear to them (and to us) what exactly they were for. Wind sensors tend to be recognized but an ongoing puzzle is a four meter high mast located in the middle of a busy pedestrian harbour park area in Rotterdam to which six small sensors are attached. None of our participants knew what it was and neither did (or do) we – although speculation was rampant and funny, ranging from a thing of the harbour authorities to the NSA and the Russians.

Based on their professional knowledge many of our civil servants also pointed at invisible data of and in the city, such as the cadastre, building permits, licenses and so on. One of our participants summed it up nicely when she said: “You see more than you think, but you see less than there is.”

The two follow-up questions, what happens with this data and who owns them, turned out to be highly problematic. The best illustration comes from a conversation with group of high-ranking city civil servants walking by the entrance of their own office building. Our moderator asked them to stop and reflect on the usage of their employee ID-card and the control gates which could be seen through the windows of the building. “You scan your card every day. What happens with this data?” The group of five fell silent and looked vaguely at each other: nobody knew whether scanning meant registration, and, if it does mean registration, by whom, and with what purpose and duration. The same happened in other groups when talking, for instance, about the data registered when paying parking fees, or when entering monitored apartment buildings. Among ourselves, as a research group, we had to admit we were not very aware of the usage of our digital coffee and copy tokens either. The everyday nature of such data delivery is apparently also a factor that makes data invisible and, as a result, beyond reflection.

Data awareness: civic challenge or individual responsibility?

As part of our fourth question about control of data, when asked whether people minded that they knew so little about what happened with data in the city, the answers varied. This is a topic that we need to analyse in much more detail in future research, but one tendency is worth sharing presently. At the office entrance, one participant was embarrassed and felt he should know more and be more aware; while another said he didn’t feel a need to be aware, because in his long career at the city he hadn’t noticed any abuse of data control. Both answers frame data awareness and empowerment as an individual (lack of) responsibility, rather than as a public and collective challenge.

Such individualistic frame was even more explicit in the discussion among students about parking data: “I don’t have a car, why should I care?” Their conversation about the smart, ID-card enabled bins of their student apartment demonstrated a similar instrumental and individualistic  perspective on smart city technologies: as they pay for it, it makes sense that other people, without the right authentication, cannot use it. The question from our moderator whether there is a public and shared responsibility to have enough places in a city to dispose of your garbage did not resonate with them.

A digitized future

Our data walks, until now, thus give us some clear directions for further work and some tough matters to think about. It seems obvious that there is an enormous lack of knowledge among city users and city makers about the digital and datafied technologies in smart cities. In addition, as a result of the everyday nature of much personal data delivery (employee card, parking card, smart phone payment and so on) there is little reflection on what is known.

While there are evidently no easy solutions to raising the data-awareness of city users and city makers, the bigger challenge seems to be to reconstruct digitization and datafication as a social issue rather than as an individual responsibility. It may be that this tendency in our conversation is a result of us walking, to-date, mainly with members of the city elites (civil servants and students, mainly white, well-educated and middle class). In our other projects, we work with members of vulnerable groups as well and this may produce a different idea of collective responsibility.

Liesbet van Zoonen, Academic Director, Centre for BOLD Cities, is Professor of Sociology and Dean of the Erasmus Graduate School of Social Sciences and the Humanities, Erasmus University Rotterdam. Her research questions the relevance of popular culture to civic understanding and social participation.

Fadi Hirzalla is a researcher at Erasmus University Rotterdam and coordinator of the Rotterdam Knowledge Lab Urban Big Data. His research focuses on citizenship and new media in relation to youth and intercultural relationships.

Jiska Engelbert is Assistant Professor and a critical discourse researcher, Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication, Erasmus University Rotterdam. Her work explores the relationship between media-oriented practices and neoliberalism.

Linda Zuijderwijk is postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for BOLD Cities. Affiliated with Erasmus University Rotterdam as an urban sociologist, she is currently working as a researcher of social innovation in the European TRANSIT project.

Luuk Schokker is Executive Manager, the Centre for BOLD Cities. Holding an MA in English Literature & Culture from the University of Amsterdam, he specialises in the usages of narrative techniques in cultural context.

Header image: Matthew Henry/Unsplash/cc



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