Smart City Data: for and with citizens


10 minute read
Jo Morrison

Jo Morrison

Director of Digital Innovation & Research

Digital Placemaking

Digital Insights

timelapse cityscape photography during night time, shot from birds eye view - with lights representing the connectivity of a smart city

Photo: Kostiantyn Stupak

From electric scooters and self-driving shuttles to nano gas sensors that detect air pollution and crosswalk lights that use artificial intelligence to predict accidents, the technologies underpinning smart city projects are set to revolutionise our experience of urban spaces.

No longer is the smart city just a sophisticated concept. Local authorities across the UK and Europe are actively exploring ways in which connected urban tech can support their place strategies. Indeed, the estimated value of the global market is staggeringly huge, whichever analyst’s prediction one chooses: McKinsey; PwC; J.P. Morgan.

While procurement and deployment of smart tech is increasingly pervasive, relatively few people really know it’s happening and even fewer, I am guessing, have a sense of the potential consequences. Fortunately, there are a range of organisations that are pursuing responsible and thoughtful approaches to how smart connected devices, systems and networks can be created in ethical ways that engender citizen trust. After all, there’s no opting-out of a smart city.

In this article, I highlight a few interesting initiatives that give me hope for the future of our shared digitally infused environments:

Algorithms, AI and transparency

With algorithms and artificial intelligence forming the foundations of the smart city project, surely it’s essential that citizens understand their potential impact? We should all be able to trust that the smart cities being imagined, constructed and deployed by governments and the private sector are the types of places in which we want to live, to thrive.

With this in mind, Helsinki and Amsterdam recently launched the first ever AI registries to show how cities use algorithms and artificial intelligence systems in a transparent way. 

Not only do the registers give citizens an overview of their city’s AI systems – including why and how algorithms are being used, who is affected, what data is being used, how it is processed and how discrimination is prevented – citizens are also able to give feedback. The hope is that this will help to build a fairer, more responsible and human-centred AI system in the long-run.

Amsterdam’s AI register currently includes systems around automated parking control, public space notifications, vacation rental home fraud, and pop-up monitors that take photos of people to ensure they are keeping a 1.5m distance during the pandemic. 

Helsinki’s AI register, meanwhile, has projects ranging from social services, healthcare and housing to environment, culture and leisure. For example, a health centre chatbot, parking chatbot, maternity clinic chatbot, a book recommendation service in its Central Library Oodi and an intelligent material management system for the City Library’s 1.8 million item collection.

Helsinki and Amsterdam are both involved in #AI4Cities, alongside four other European cities looking for AI solutions on mobility and energy to accelerate carbon neutrality. Technologies such as big data applications, 5G, edge computing and Internet of Things will doubtless feature heavily. Of course, those involved will need to ensure that their proposed AI solutions are transparent throughout so that we, the citizens, understand and trust what has the potential to be a planet-saving programme.

Recently, driven by a desire for ‘location data to be used for the betterment of the world and all species that live in it‘ an international collaboration of governments, organizations and individual practitioners launched the Locus Charter. By following the common founding principles, it is hoped that the ethical & responsible use of location data will be realised throughout the world. 

Already, machine learning algorithms are deployed in the public realm to act upon the world using ‘rules’ that are invisible to us, thus, it’s comforting to know that initiatives such as the AI registeries and the Locus Charter are making a positive contribution to the ways that our smart environments can be shaped. As one panelist noted in a recent webinar: “Quite simply, if you can’t explain an algorithm, don’t use it.” 

Open data and governance

The growth of data is a global phenomenon. It underpins our businesses, our economies and our societies. Sharing data across borders is complicated and technology governance continues to be a major issue across the world.

For smart cities to be trusted by citizens, core challenges in areas such as privacy, transparency and cyber-security need to be addressed.

black framed glasses in front of computer, with the computer showing lots of data
Photo: Kevin Ku

The G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance was formed in 2019 with the goal of uniting municipal, regional and national governments, private-sector partners and citizens around a shared set of principles for the responsible and ethical use of smart city technologies. 

The partnership-based initiative – which covers 36 countries representing more than 200,000 cities and local governments, business, startups, research institutions and civil society communities – is investigating five key policies: equity, inclusivity and social impact; security and resilience; privacy and transparency; openness and interoperability; and operational accountability.

With the growth of the Internet of Things in public spaces, the Alliance recognises the critical importance of addressing governance gaps and advancing responsible open data policies that will allow cities to learn from one another and build smart infrastructures that citizens trust.

three white cctv cameras on a building
Photo: Ennio Dybeli

There is much to be learned from Vienna’s approach, which has been operating an open data policy for 10 years – the Open Government Data Initiative. Vienna believes in an open and transparent system that makes city data available to the public for their further use. Personal data are excluded from the Open Data concept. The main prerequisite for data to be included is their machine readability in open formats. The city has both a digital strategy and a data excellence strategy – the first pillar of which is data governance – and has set up a dedicated strategic and operational board to oversee this.

London also has its own free and open data-sharing portal, the London Datastore, where anyone can access data relating to the capital. This includes 700 datasets to help people understand the city and develop solutions to London’s problems. Turkey operates a similar platform with 150 datasets related to the environment, human governance, security and the economy.

Amid a global pandemic where cities have changed immeasurably, the benefits of advancing urban and data technologies are clear. This is why it is so important that we have open data policies and governance that allow us to responsibly share data across cities, regions and borders. Good data governance can be seen as the unsung hero of our future smart spaces.


Interoperability and the standardisation of smart city components is another important factor to be considered when creating smart city infrastructures that citizens trust. 

Here, we can draw inspiration from the city of Flanders in Brussels, which has developed its own Flanders Open City Architecture (VLOCA) framework as part of its mission to become a leading smart region in Europe.

VLOCA is working closely with local authorities, businesses and other stakeholders to create a broad-based reference framework for projects in smart cities, municipalities and the Flemish region – including agreements, guidelines and technical specifications on the exchange of data between IT systems.

Screenshot 2021 01 14 at 09.45.47During a talk I attended recently, VLOCA said it wanted to standardise smart city components in order to have a more active smart city marketplace. VLOCA expressed the importance of markets needing reusable and modular components, being able to combine solutions across suppliers, and having freedom in the solution to architecture and composition. 

Central to the development of VLOCA is its ‘knowledge hub’, which is where VLOCA will share all of its results. The hub will also allow stakeholders and participants to work together to agree on the common standards that define their framework.

VLOCA is an interesting example of how to bring governance and technologies together in a way that will allow smart cities to support local evolution – supporting marketplaces to flourish. Having these kinds of standards and scripts around data has the potential to help boost innovative applications and drive sustainable growth for responsible smart city initiatives in the long-run.

Building trust with digital placemaking

As I have already highlighted, transparency is key to the success of smart cities and there are lessons to be learned from the good practices we see in digital placemaking.

While digital placemaking is not dictated by connectivity – unlike smart cities – the practice deals with people, places, technology and data, and so there are many insights we can draw upon to support the ways that we design for our smart environments.

Importantly, great digital placemaking use cases demonstrate how we can put digital technologies into the world in ways that work for everyone.

I saw the potential for community engagement with urban tech to positively shape regeneration schemes when undertaking digital placemaking research in Cardiff Bay. By the end of Calvium’s six-month research project, it was apparent that digital placemaking can contribute to the social, cultural, environmental and economic prosperity of a location.

Ideascape – Porth Teigr, Cardiff

Digital placemaking enables places rendered inaccessible due to a paucity of information to become accessible, through adopting an inclusive design approach. Project NavSta, the mobile wayfinding system for people with hidden disabilities to navigate railway stations independently, enables people to participate in the full richness of a city –  cultural, social and economic. It does so by plugging the current gap in digital navigation tools, thereby providing users with the full complement of information they need to travel around a city. 

Applying inclusive design to smart city projects, systems, governance and so forth would be invaluable in positioning smart technologies as a force for good.

The University of Edinburgh recently published an article that I wrote titled ‘Digital Placemaking for More Inclusive and Accessible Cities’, where I discussed how digital placemaking can help communities to identify the types of smart liveable places that appeal. Here, I proposed a citizen engagement project called ‘Smart City Farm’ to encourage people to explore how digital technologies and artificial intelligence could help to mitigate climate change and biodiversity loss. I’m so keen to get this project off the ground and into the world – watch this space!

On a duck egg blue background, the design shows a hub of people around a building that is supposed to demonstrate the city farm cafe being the hub of the visit. There are references to technology in the image too - perhaps the farm shop is the only place people can connect or plug their phones in, hence the hub.

Final thoughts

Having examined smart cities and data through a variety of lenses, it seems clear that the most successful and trusted smart places will be the ones that are designed and developed with a human (and nature)-centred approach, not a purely techno-economic one.

There are a few important things to remember about smart city location data:

  • Creative, responsible and inclusive approaches to collecting and using data should underpin thinking and doing. 
  • Do not cause harm to anyone or anything, it’s not acceptable to ‘move fast and break things’ and ‘disrupt’ for the sake of disruption.
  • Good governance, stewardship and transparency is vital for scrutiny and accountability.
  • Ensure individual privacy and avoid discrimination.

We need to be thinking how we can design transparency into the place-based algorithms. Amsterdam and Helsinki have shown how AI registers can boost transparency and trust in smart cities – in a human-centred way.

We need to put people and nature at the heart of everything we do, taking an holistic, systems approach. 

Data protection is a European human right and cities must evolve the ways in which they share and govern data. Initiatives like the G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance seem to be leading the way in pioneering global policies that will allow for the ethical and responsible use of data and technology. Let’s hope to see more cities sign-up.

Ultimately, smart cities will achieve their potential for good if they are built upon solid ethical foundations.

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