Smart City Data Projects Need Transparency and Oversight

Experts at the MetroLab Network Annual Summit warned about the need for control of data-heavy public safety projects, while emphasizing the positive side of community engagement.

NEWARK, N.J. — The massive amounts of data collected by cities, and the analytics it enables, are often trumpeted as forces to grow the collective good, whether that is to make traffic move more smoothly or improve air quality.
With improper oversight and policy direction, however, that data can also lead to unjust policing or uncontrolled surveillance of communities, say researchers and policymakers who have studied the various types of smart cities technologies being deployed in municipalities across the country.
“As we look at the next few years, the big challenge, in my mind, is there’s no formal public oversight over technology in our cities,” said Ryan Gerety, a technology fellow at the Ford Foundation, speaking Oct. 15 at the MetroLab Network Annual Summit at Newark’s New Jersey Institute of Technology. “Cities, themselves, recognize this and are looking for mechanisms to correct that.”
Agencies with some of the biggest budgets and consequently amassing the most technology tend to be in areas of public safety, said Gerety, and that’s where oversight is often thinnest.
“We have many people in the room who are extremely expert at building systems to change, in very positive ways, communities, and people who are choosing to work with those city agencies who want to do that in the best way possible,” said Gerety during the panel discussion “Are Smart Cities Utopian or Dystopian?”
“The flip side of that is in places where you have much more regressive, say, police departments who want to do something different, who will go ahead and do it on their own, and where we don’t have a civil society that is informed in order to push back against illegal or inappropriate measures,” she added. “And so we need to have civil rights organizations, and social justice organizations, at the local level that have the technical capacity to fight back and evaluate these programs, using the best know-how we’ve learned to do it right, and we need legal, formal accountability.”
Three years ago Chicago rolled out its Array of Things project, an enterprise-scale, sensor-driven Internet of Things platform that collects data about the people, places and air quality in Chicago. The network gathers information related to the patterns of people as they move through the city, not data related to individuals.
Researchers wanted to design an infrastructure for research into intelligent infrastructure: street signals, real-time communications between infrastructure and vehicles, which require edge computing, as well as sensors to measure flooding. The data is updated every 30 seconds, and is free and open. The application programming interface (API) is updated every five minutes.
With 80 percent of Chicagoans living about two kilometers from one of the 100 sensor and camera pods, it was immediately obvious how a citywide IoT network like this one could raise concerns around privacy and using the data to further questionable activities like unjust policing or surveillance.
Advocacy groups, along with city and University of Chicago officials, came together to define a privacy policy that exceeded the state requirements in Illinois, and took that draft to communities for resident feedback, said Brenna Berman, the executive director of the City Tech Collaborative at U+I Labs in Chicago, who worked on the rollout of the Array of Things.
“We did not get a lot of pushback about those cameras, mainly because this was a community-based project, not a public safety-based project,” she said during the panel discussion. Residents wanted more access to the images in an effort to be more engaged in the policing of their neighborhoods.
“So the pushback wasn’t, ‘Hey, we don’t want surveillance.’ [It was,] ‘We want to have participation in that surveillance so that we can help to serve our advocacy and engagement within our community,’” Berman recalled.
One of the biggest lessons learned was, “listen to the residents that are going to be engaged in the project, because you can’t guess what they are going to think or need unless you actually ask,” said Berman.
The next evolution of the Array of Things project is to install more of the sensor pods for greater detailed readings, said Charlie Catlett, a senior computer scientist with the Argonne National Laboratory at the University of Chicago.
“Our goal is to make 100 percent of the people who live in Chicago have one of these within 2 kilometers of where they live,” said Catlett, during one of the MetroLab Summit sessions. “And we think we can push the 1 kilometer up to at least 70 to 80 percent of the population, at which point an air quality measurement or a noise measurement starts to mean something if it’s a kilometer away instead of 6 kilometers.”
The community IoT network project in Chicago — which brought together community and social justice advocacy groups — underscored how to move forward with sophisticated smart city projects dedicated to collecting and analyzing large amounts of data to bring about improvements to urban life, according to Berman.
“When you’re defining the project and the policy around it — whatever that might be — involve those advocacy groups, whether that’s the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union], or a specific community representation group, so that they are part of the definition of the project,” she said. “You may not be able to implement everything they suggest. You may not be able to address every concern that they have. But essentially, having the advocacy voice in the tent to help you define the program can go a long way in defining a program that will more holistically understand what the perspective of the overall ecosystem is going to be.”
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