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Will We Ever Be Ready for Smart Cities? July 12, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Machine Learning, Technology and Culture.
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In theory, a smart city is a great idea.  With thousands of sensors and real time data analytics, the city and its inhabitants can operate far more efficiently than they do today.  We have detailed traffic, pedestrian, and shopping patterns, right down to the individual if we so choose.

We can use data on traffic flows to route traffic and coordinate traffic lights.  Stores can operate at times that are convenient to people.  Power plants can generate electricity based on actual real time usage.  Crime patterns can be easily identified, with crime avoidance and crimefighting strategies applied accordingly.  The amount of data that can be collected in a city with tens of thousands of sensors all feeding into a massive database is enormous.

This is what Google (Alphabet) wants to do in a development in Toronto, with its company Sidewalk Labs, and last year won the right to take a neighborhood under development and make it a smart city.  This article cites that urban planners have rushed to develop the waterfront area and build the necessary infrastructure to create at least a smart neighborhood that demonstrates many of the concepts.

But now Toronto is pushing back on the whole idea.  The primary issue is one of data control and use.  A smart city will generate enormous amounts of data, not just on aggregates of people, but on identifiable images and people.  It seems this was left as a “to be determined” item in initial selection and negotiations.  Now that Sidewalk Labs is moving forward to build out the plan, the question of the data has come to the forefront.  And what is occurring isn’t pretty.

The answer that seems to be popular is called a “data trust”, a storage and access entity that protects the data from both government and the vendor supplying the smart services.  Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs claims to have produced the strongest possible data protection plan; Toronto and activist groups strongly disagree.  Without seeing the plan, I can’t say, but I can say that I would be concerned about a commercial vendor (especially one connected to Google) having any access to this level of data for any purpose.  It is truly the next level of potentially breeching privacy to obtain deeper commercial data.  And do any of us really think that Google won’t ultimately do so?

Now, I was raised in rural America, and while I am comfortable enough whenever I am in a city, it is not my preferred habitat.  It seems to me that there is a tradeoff between privacy and the ability to use data on individual activities (even aggregated) to make day to day activities more efficient for the city and its occupants.  Despite the abstract advantages in the smart cities approach, I don’t think we have the trust necessary to carry it out.


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