Urban Governance, Transparency, and Privacy in a Digital Age

Experts from around the world give us their take on the challenges and opportunities for smart cities and digital urbanism.

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In a pandemic age, is digital participation really optional anymore? What does it really mean to be a “smart city?” Is health data from wearable monitoring devices properly regulated? These are just some of the questions that were tackled last Thursday in our unique two-panel discussion on digital urbanism and data governance, titled “Living Tomorrow: The Caring City.”

Commentator Yves Daccord, former Director General of the ICRC and fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center, set the stage with a powerful reflection on the theme of #LivingTomorrow:

“There is no better theme — especially right now in the US and around the world — than living not just tomorrow, but living together tomorrow. I am deeply convinced that cities are an important place where our social contract—our “us”—is really developing.”

Below, you’ll find a few takeaways from our two panels. They are by no means exhaustive, but provide a snapshot of the discussion. Want to listen to the whole event? You can watch the full recording here.

#1: When visualized in the right way, data is a powerful form of expression and connection with others.

Castro wants to employ data as a form of expression that promotes connectivity. “We hear a lot about how we can make decisions based on big data and algorithms, and how we can make fast, efficient, and precise decisions. I’m actually interested in how data can make us more present and open to experiencing otherness,” she says.

Castro has worked on a variety of data visualization projects to make the statistics behind social issues in Brazilian cities more transparent and accessible, and believes in data as a powerful tool to make cities more connected and caring.

#2: True digital accessibility and transparency is difficult to achieve without government participation.

But, as Edouard Bugnion, VP for Information Systems at EPFL reminded us, even if municipalities are willing to collaborate on data governance, it may not always be easy. Cities have digitized their systems and data sources, but very often these systems are siloed and have a lot of technical debt: they are constantly playing catch-up when digitizing systems.

#3: Open data isn’t always a good thing, especially when it comes to privacy.

Fabro Steibel also points out that with more data transparency and public availability can lead to more discrimination and profiling, and that we still don’t understand how freedom of information laws and privacy laws can work together.

This is especially true when working with municipal databases and systems. They are often decades behind in digital developments, so working towards data transparency is not a simple task. Bugnion points out that when municipal data is suddenly made public, it is also easily misinterpreted, whether maliciously or accidentally.

#4: Digital initiatives in cities require community buy-in and trust.

Kelley Schneider, a Senior Consultant at Deloitte points out that in order to be successful in transforming cities and communities into “smart cities,” smart city initiatives need community input and buy-in from the beginning of the design process. “Instead of saying we have this technology, how can we deploy it, we should instead bring people in from the beginning and ask what challenges they are facing, and then mapping technology to that.”

#5: In a pandemic age, participation in digital technologies is not really optional anymore.

#6: Cities don’t always need cutting-edge technology to be “smart.”

O’Brien thinks that smart city transformations can instead come from the mundane: naturally-occurring data. He tells us that “we collect data on everything from transit to housing to education to health, the list goes on. Those basic data sets that are some level really boring, are also the basic foundation for understanding the day to day patterns of our society and the pulse of the city.”

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For more information, visit nex20.ch.

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Connecting the dots between Swiss and North American innovators. www.swissnexboston.org

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