Transparency in Smart Cities to regain trust

The city of Barcelona in Spain is testing drones to improve the management of its beaches and estimate their capacity in real time. Don’t worry – as the bid for the drones clearly states – the image processing system anonymizes those caught in the picture, thereby rights and freedoms of individuals are fully safeguarded.

Privacy and data protection are more and more important for people. Surveillance technologies, as well as any other digital urban system, are increasingly subject to public scrutiny as citizens want to know who and what is being monitored, which data are being collected, how they are treated, which levels of security are provided.

Public trust is crucial for the success of any smart technology project related to public assets, infrastructures, and spaces. That’s why many cities are engaging their communities in the early design stages, well before technology is procured and installed. The more information is proactively disclosed about project goals, systems to be implemented, and data to be collected, the easier it should be to build consensus and public acceptance.

Of course, the road may not go all downhill – but at least the city should not experience what happened in San Diego, US, where in 2019 citizens learnt that the city had quietly installed surveillance cameras on 3,000 smart streetlights three years earlier. Cameras were immediately switched off, but the vocal controversy about tech governance and privacy protection has not ended yet.

A simple way to be transparent is making technology somehow visible. Sounds a little counterintuitive, but it proved to be effective. The city of Boston piloted DTPR, an open-source communication standard for digital technologies in shared spaces, and placed recognizable icons where connected sensors were active, encouraging citizens to learn more about them by scanning a QR code. The initiative was highly appreciated as part of Boston’s efforts to ensure data collection in the public realm inspires resident trust, engagement, and satisfaction.

But reassuring people about privacy and data management is not enough to gain trust. Let’s consider an additional element, that is effectiveness. Citizens and stakeholders want to know if targets are reached, which results are achieved, how smart technologies contributed to a safer, more sustainable, and livable community. The accurate measurement of key metrics is therefore pivotal: without proper reporting, cities will have trouble in managing and maintaining trust in digital technologies over time.


Image credit: City of Boston, DTPR signage at Tremont and Boylston streets

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