The role of smart tech for planning smarter cities

It has to start somewhere

On a recent trip to Paris, I took a Lyft from the Palais to the Jewish Quarter to catch France beat Uruguay on its way to World Cup glory. While Lyft does not provide all of the details behind this trip, it could actually provide the city with the total volume of trips to and from the Palaís by the hour.

Why would this information even be important? What action could the city take? Well, for starters, it could help the city plan more frequent metro service, or provide potential consumer patterns to business owners for targeted marketing, or even launch transportation promotions.

It all starts with a little bit of data collection. This hypothetical yet very real example is the concept behind a renewed push for technology companies and municipalities to work together in delivering real-world services.

Quid Pro Quo Partnership

From San Diego to Paris, cities are testing open data projects so private companies can use publicly sourced insights in order to innovate clever solutions to confounding problems like waste management, traffic congestion, and homelessness.

The Deputy Mayor of Paris, Jean-Louis Missika, sees this as version “2.0” of the public-private partnership model. But, unlike public-private models, which run through formal procurement processes and come with well-documented terms and conditions, technology companies’ use of municipalities’ digital and physical infrastructure carries an implicit quid pro quo: the data you collect throughout the process serves the public good. In Mr. Missika's view, some aspects of this data ought to be shared back to the city in order that it may regulate more pragmatically, police more efficiently, and invest more wisely.

 

We know that data is valuable; but what’s the value of data?

Viewed through the lens of ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) considerations, the notion that private companies that leverage public information to capture economic reward have an obligation to return value beyond taxes is not controversial. In fact, it’s one of the core implications of ESG thinking: private enterprises have a social obligation to those beyond the immediate consumers of the product or service. The question becomes: what data will these companies volunteer (or be compelled) to share back to the public?

The question becomes: what data will these companies volunteer (or be compelled) to share back to the public?

The answer could be matching the “level" of data to municipal scale. Hear me out on this one… Cities serve in the best interest of whole groups of people. So in a situation where what’s best for a city’s population is determined in aggregates, why not insist that private companies return data to cities at a commensurate level of aggregation?

This worldview leads us down a path where private companies who leverage public infrastructure, including data, for core business execution are also in the business of shared value creation. Perhaps we’re onto an approach that leads to better, smarter, cleaner, and more equitable municipal infrastructure.

 

A tale of two sides: Who owns the data?

Some technology companies do not merely seek to leverage municipal infrastructure but rather replace it altogether. Google’s wayward fiber project or Facebook’s satellite-served internet connectivity project are poster children. These projects present a fascinating conundrum where data and its insights are owned by the infrastructure owner start to finish since they supplant, not ride-on-top-of or augment, municipal infrastructure.

In the case of Google Fiber, details about who logs in where, when, why and for how long originate from Google itself, eliminating the public infrastructure and quid pro quo relationship. A cynical view but, from the company’s perspective, that's the point.

While not all companies are looking exclusively for self-gain, it’s a point that cannot be ignored. Will “ownership” of data be the breaking point for innovation and improvement projects or spark a virtuous cycle of better collaboration and therefore better infrastructure for cities?

With more cities getting curious about the data available or possible, the future of tech-enabled cities is just on the horizon.

 

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