Citizen Engagement Critical for Safe City Success
The safe city is a concept born from the power and economy of today’s communications technologies, which make it possible to place thousands of sensors, cameras and other intelligent devices throughout an urban area in order to provide city authorities with unprecedented data and understandings for what people are doing and how fundamental infrastructures are behaving. This vision holds great promise but also raises questions about how safe city technologies will affect everyone they touch – from urban administrators to everyday citizens.
It’s a multi-faceted issue that encompasses such basic principles as freedom, convenience, security, privacy and transparency. How safe city developers and managers address these considerations will impact the success of any smart grid deployment.
“There are many ways in which these technologies will affect the way people behave,” notes João Barros, Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Porto, Portugal, and also Founding Director of its Institute for Telecommunications. “The most fundamental ones have to do with the way city managers and the citizens they serve make decisions, and the relationship between the two.”
PRIVACY, TRANSPARENCY AND ENGAGEMENT
“People have to be consulted from the beginning, and mayors should not deploy a system without first having this interaction.”
Ensuring citizen comfort and confidence in data-intensive smart cities can be addressed by thoughtful efforts to include citizens in planning process, providing full disclosure and transparency for ongoing development and operations.
Overall, the more transparent the system, the safer citizens will feel, and that’s why they should be in the loop at all points in the project, beginning with the earliest planning. “What worries people is when they find out that a sensor system is being deployed, but nobody asked them or told them why or what it is about and what kind of information it will collect,” Barros notes. “People have to be consulted from the beginning, and mayors should not deploy a system without first having this interaction.”
Barros adds that when you have an ongoing discussion with citizens, then it becomes much easier to prioritize needs and solutions. “If they tell you that they are afraid of being mugged all of the time, then there is an indication that they will accept a reduction in privacy to make them safer. If they tell you that their biggest fear is the ability to get out of the city in the case of an earthquake or the ability to call their relatives to see if they’re okay, then you know that you may want to invest in an emergency wireless mesh network. This is a wise way to set priorities.”
In Chattanooga, the local utility, Electric Power Board (EPB) has initiated a customer program called Intentional Conversation, which reflects collaboration between the service provider, the city and the citizen. The city’s Ochs Center conducted a community-wide survey called the Chattanooga Stand, gathering the views of over 26,000 residents on such topics as pollution, education, crime and jobs – all part of the local culture of citizen engagement and collaboration.
Hidden, mysterious infrastructure that is not fully explained could serve to make citizens suspicious, according to Barros. “People become concerned about things that they don’t see or understand,” he notes. “For example, in Holland smart grid deployments were stopped because people became aware that smart meters were potentially providing information about whether they were home or not, even though that wasn’t necessarily the case.”
“An open data approach creates greater transparency, and if more people have access to it you have more checks and balances built into the system than if you give access to a single entity.”
Barros recommends that city managers and others specifying these deployments also should adhere to an open data model where information obtained via public resources is made available to the public in a way that is accessible to all. “This means that if a city is tracking all of its public busses, it will make the data available via the web to the greatest extent possible, given privacy and security concerns, so that citizens can see it and multiple companies can use it to create apps and other creative tools to help make public transportation easier. This open data approach creates greater transparency, and if more people have access to it you have more checks and balances built into the system than if you give access to a single entity.”
USABILITY: ANOTHER KEY TO ACCEPTANCE
Usability is another key to acceptance that Barros feels is essential. “Very often we have this real-time information available, but we don’t have the right user interfaces or right apps for people to interact with it so that it is valuable to them and improves their quality of life. This also affects their sense of security. When they have a feeling of more understanding and control, along with the right checks and balances, then deploying the technology will be much easier.”
“When people have a feeling of more understanding and control, along with the right checks and balances, then deploying the technology will be much easier.”
Barros notes that the University of Porto’s Institute of Telecommunications has a rule that large projects must involve end users in their development. “We are working with bus drivers, taxi drivers, firefighters and others to develop the technology for them and with them,” Barros says. “One project involves taxis equipped with wireless communications technology that instantly shares location, riders, routes, dispatching and other information with the other taxis and the entire company network. We have psychologists working with the taxi drivers, assessing the impact on them of having a silent computer that tells them where they need to go. This is just one example of how you really need to work closely with the end users. That important aspect is often missed when new technology is developed.”
POLICY AND REGULATION STRUGGLING TO KEEP UP
Policy and regulation is another important issue in the development of safe cities, but Barros notes that the pace of policy making has lagged behind that of technological development. “Cities are becoming so complex that it’s getting more difficult for policy makers to understand the subtleties of the systems that are being deployed,” he says. “If you compare the process that a new medicine has to go through before it reaches the market to the path a piece of hardware or software for a smart city takes, it’s clear that the hardware and software deployment happens years faster with significantly less discovery. This has to change if we want to have safe cities.”
Barros believes that authorities must have speedy access to the right expertise in order to make sensible decisions about how to regulate safe sensors, vehicular mesh networks and all sorts of other connected objects that will be populating our cities very soon. He notes that some educational institutions, such as Carnegie-Mellon University, are helping to address this issue by offering engineering and public policy as a combined degree program. “That approach enables people to be comfortable with both the technical and social aspects, and everything else that goes into policy making,” he says.
PREPARING SOCIETY FOR THE FUTURE
“We should start now with education in schools to make sure that we raise awareness of how communications technology will be pervasive, and how it will affect lives and decision making in the future.”
Smart city development will obviously affect future generations ever more profoundly as technology advances and deployments continue, making public education another key factor for success. “We should start now with education in schools to make sure that we raise awareness of how communications technology will be pervasive, and how it will affect lives and decision making in the future,” Barros states. “That will help us ensure that the next generation is prepared to deal with all of the issues that will come with the new reality.”
Once citizens are engaged, with a role in shaping the smart city’s future, the ultimate buy-in may come down to performance. “People are concerned that someone might monitor their movements or energy usage, and perhaps find out things about them that they don’t want to be public,” Barros points out. “However, if the power grid is smarter and better managed, and if the transportation system is more reliable because it has adequate sensing and signaling, then people will feel safer because of that.”
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