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The role of the citizen in the smart city

By: Information Daily Staff Writer
Published: Monday, May 13, 2013 - 05:44 GMT Jump to Comments

Technology has changed how we look at city infrastructure, raising the possibility of smart cities. Could it now change how city governments and citizens interact?

Dan Hill, CEO of Fabrica thinks so. He believes that social media is the most exciting technology around today. He wants to use these platforms to put the citizen at the centre of the smart city, creating interaction between governments and individuals.

Hill argues that the current smart city vision is too technocratic, viewing the city as ‘something we might understand if only we had enough data – like an engine or a nuclear power station.’ Instead, he argues that the city’s ‘cloudiness’ is its strength, and that by following the centralised model we risk repeating the mistakes of the mid-20th century. 

Saskia Sassen agrees. Speaking at a conference in Marseille, Sassen says too many of our smart city systems are closed and built on engineer’s logic. Although very much in favour of technology in cities she says it needs to be urbanised and built around the user.

These ideas are fairly theoretical but there are signs that cities are trying to engage more with their citizens. Open Data is one way in which some cities are giving citizens the power to change how they live. City data is opened up to the public who use it to build applications and gain insight into how the city works.

The Economist reports that Chicago is currently working on software which will allow it to publish data, in close to real time. The city has already benefited from applications built by citizens.

Still, there are limits to this approach writes Usman Haque, CEO of Connected Environments in Wired. He cites the example of air quality measurements, which he says provide good information at city level, but are not of much use to individuals. After all, he explains, if you live in a polluted area there is little you can do short of moving house.

To make Open Data useful, citizens need to create their own data rather than be passive consumers, writes Haque. Again using example of air quality, he explains that a citizen led monitoring system would be more useful as they could identify particularly bad pockets of pollution and help inform everyday decisions; for example where parents should allow children to play.

William Perrin, founder and manager of kingscrossenvironment.com believes that open data can work but it needs to be relevant to people’s needs. In the talk about local blog, he says government in the UK has been too focused on getting data out. Instead, Perrin writes that authorities need to think about how the public will use it. He wants to see the government reach out to communities that lack ‘geek credentials’ to show them that this data exists and how it can help them. He suggests focusing on areas of civic activism such as pub licensing and planning applications before moving into other areas.

But making data usable is not cheap, writes Rick Robinson, executive architect at IBM. He says the IT industry would disappear if producing easy-to-use information from the systems that manage our cities was easy. For Robinson, the problem is how to pay for it. He notes that, with Open Data, the organisation that bears the cost of creating it is often not the one that benefits. Despite these reservations, Robinson says the ‘potential value of Open Data is too great for us to afford to be negative, cynical or apathetic.’

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