Problematizing data-driven urban practices: Insights from five Dutch ‘smart cities’

Paper by Damion J.Bunders and KrisztinaVarró: Recently, the concept of the smart city has gained growing popularity. As cities worldwide have set the aim to harness digital technologies to their development, increasing focus came to lie on the potential challenges and concerns related to data-driven urban practices. In the existing literature, these challenges and concerns have been dominantly approached from a pragmatic approach based on the a priori assumed ‘goodness’ of the smart city; for a small group of critics, the very notion of the smart city is questionable. This paper takes the middle-way by interrogating how municipal and civil society stakeholders problematize the challenges and concerns related to data-driven practices in five Dutch cities, and how they act on these concerns in practice.

The lens of problematization posits that the ways of problematizing data-driven practices contribute to their actual enactment, and that this is an inherently political process. The case study shows that stakeholders do not only perceive practical challenges but are widely aware of and are (partly) pro-actively engaging with perceived normative-ethical and societal concerns, leading to different (sometimes inter-related) technological, legal/political, organizational, informative and participative strategies. Nonetheless, the explicit contestation of smart city policies through these strategies remains limited in scope. The paper argues that more research is needed to uncover the structural-institutional dynamics that facilitate and/or prevent the repoliticization of smart city projects….(More)”.

The Smart Enough City

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Open Access Book by Ben Green: “Smart cities, where technology is used to solve every problem, are hailed as futuristic urban utopias. We are promised that apps, algorithms, and artificial intelligence will relieve congestion, restore democracy, prevent crime, and improve public services. In The Smart Enough City, Ben Green warns against seeing the city only through the lens of technology; taking an exclusively technical view of urban life will lead to cities that appear smart but under the surface are rife with injustice and inequality. He proposes instead that cities strive to be “smart enough”: to embrace technology as a powerful tool when used in conjunction with other forms of social change—but not to value technology as an end in itself….(More)”.

Some notes on smart cities and the corporatization of urban governance

Presentation by Constance Carr and Markus Hesse: “We want to address a discrepancy; that is, the discrepancy between processes and practices of technological development on one hand and/or production processes of urban change and urban problems on the other. There’s a gap here, that we can illustrate with the case of the so called“Google City”.

The scholarly literature on digital cities is quite clear that there are externalities, uncertainties and risks associated with the hype around, and the rash introduction of, ‘smartness’. To us, an old saying comes to mind: Don’t put the wagon before the horse.

Obviously, digitization and technology have revolutionized geography in many ways. And, this is nothing new. Roughly twenty years ago, with the rise of the Internet, some, such as MIT’s Bill Mitchell (1995), speculated that it and other ITs would eradicate space into the ‘City of Bits’. However, even back then statements like these didn’t go uncriticised by those who pointed at the inherent technological determinism and exposed that there is a complex relationship between urban development, urban planning, and technological innovation; that the relationship was neither new, nor trivial such that tech, itself, would automatically and necessarily be productive, beneficial, and central to cities.

What has changed is the proliferation of digital technologies and their applications. We agree with Ash et al. (2016) that geography has experienced a ‘digital turn’ where urban geography now produced by, through and of digitization. And, while digitalization of urbanity has provided benefits, it has also come sidelong a number of unsolved problems.

First, behind the production of big data, algorithms, and digital design, there are certain epistemologies – ways of knowing. Data is not value-free. Rather, data is an end product of political and associated methods of framing that structure the production of data. So, now that we “live in a present characterized by a […] diverse array of spatially-enabled digital devices, platforms, applications and services,” (Ash et al. 2016: 28), we can interrogate how these processes and algorithms are informed by socio-economic inequalities, because the risk is that new technologies will simply reproduce them.

Second, the circulation of data around the globe invokes questions about who owns and regulates them when stored and processed in remote geographic locations….(More)”.

Circular City Data

First Volume of Circular City, A Research Journal by New Lab edited by André Corrêa d’Almeida: “…Circular City Data is the topic being explored in the first iteration of New Lab’s The Circular City program, which looks at data and knowledge as the energy, flow, and medium of collaboration. Circular data refers to the collection, production, and exchange of data, and business insights, between a series of collaborators around a shared set of inquiries. In some scenarios, data may be produced by start-ups and of high value to the city; in other cases, data may be produced by the city and of potential value to the public, start-ups, or enterprise companies. The conditions that need to be in place to safely, ethically, and efficiently extrapolate the highest potential value from data are what this program aims to uncover.

Similar to living systems, urban systems can be enhanced if the total pool of data available, i.e., energy, can be democratized and decentralized and data analytics used widely to positively impact quality of life. The abundance of data available, the vast differences in capacity across organizations to handle it, and the growing complexity of urban challenges provides an opportunity to test how principles of circular city data can help establish new forms of public and private partnerships that make cities more economically prosperous, livable, and resilient. Though we talk of an overabundance of data, it is often still not visible or tactically wielded at the local level in a way that benefits people.

Circular City Data is an effort to build a safe environment whereby start-ups, city agencies, and larger firms can collect, produce, access and exchange data, as well as business insights, through transaction mechanisms that do not necessarily require currency, i.e., through reciprocity. Circular data is data that travels across a number of stakeholders, helping to deliver insights and make clearer the opportunities where such stakeholders can work together to improve outcomes. It includes cases where a set of “circular” relationships need to be in place in order to produce such data and business insights. For example, if an AI company lacks access to raw data from the city, they won’t be able to provide valuable insights to the city. Or, Numina required an established relationship with the DBP in order to access infrastructure necessary for them to install their product and begin generating data that could be shared back with them. ***

Next, the case study documents and explains how The Circular City program was conceived, designed, and implemented, with the goal of offering lessons for scalability at New Lab and replicability in other cities around the world. The three papers that follow investigate and methodologically test the value of circular data applied to three different, but related, urban challenges: economic growth, mobility, and resilience. At the end, the conclusion offers a meta-analysis of the value of circular city data for the future of cities and presents, integrated, the tools developed in each paper that can be used for implementation and scaling-up of a circular city program…(More).


  • Introduction to The Circular City Research Program (André Corrêa d’Almeida)
  • The Circular City Program: The Case Study (André Corrêa d’Almeida and Caroline McHeffey)  
  • Circular Data for a Circular City: Value Propositions for Economic Development (Stefaan G. Verhulst, Andrew Young, and Andrew J. Zahuranec)  
  • Circular Data for a Circular City: Value Propositions for Mobility (Arnaud Sahuguet)
  • Circular Data for a Circular City: Value Propositions for Resilience and Sustainability (Nilda Mesa)
  • Conclusio (André Corrêa d’Almeida)

Privacy and Smart Cities: A Canadian Survey

Report by Sara Bannerman and Angela Orasch: “This report presents the findings of a national survey of Canadians about smart-city privacy conducted in October and November 2018. Our research questions were: How concerned are Canadians about smart-city privacy? How do these concerns intersect with age, gender, ethnicity, and location? Moreover, what are the expectations of Canadians with regards to their ability to control, use, or opt-out of data collection in smart-city context? What rights and privileges do Canadians feel are appropriate with regard to data self-determination, and what types of data are considered more sensitive than others?

What is a smart city?
A ‘smart city’ adopts digital and data-driven technologies in the planning, management and delivery of municipal services. Information and communications technologies (ICTs), data analytics, and the internet of
things (IoT) are some of the main components of these technologies, joined by web design, online marketing campaigns and digital services. Such technologies can include smart utility and transportation infrastructure, smart cards, smart transit, camera and sensor networks, or data collection by businesses to provide customized advertisements or other services. Smart-city technologies “monitor, manage and regulate city flows and processes, often in real-time” (Kitchin 2014, 2).

In 2017, a framework agreement was established between Waterfront Toronto, the organization charged with revitalizing Toronto’s waterfront, and Sidewalk Labs, parent company of Google, to develop a smart city on Toronto’s Eastern waterfront (Sidewalk Toronto 2018). This news was met with questions and concerns from experts in data privacy and the public at large regarding what was to be included in Sidewalk Lab’s smart-city vision. How would the overall governance structure function? How were the privacy rights of residents going to be protected, and what mechanisms, if any, would ensure that protection? The Toronto waterfront is just one of numerous examples of smart-city developments….(More)”.

Urban Computing

Book by Yu Zheng:”…Urban computing brings powerful computational techniques to bear on such urban challenges as pollution, energy consumption, and traffic congestion. Using today’s large-scale computing infrastructure and data gathered from sensing technologies, urban computing combines computer science with urban planning, transportation, environmental science, sociology, and other areas of urban studies, tackling specific problems with concrete methodologies in a data-centric computing framework. This authoritative treatment of urban computing offers an overview of the field, fundamental techniques, advanced models, and novel applications.

Each chapter acts as a tutorial that introduces readers to an important aspect of urban computing, with references to relevant research. The book outlines key concepts, sources of data, and typical applications; describes four paradigms of urban sensing in sensor-centric and human-centric categories; introduces data management for spatial and spatio-temporal data, from basic indexing and retrieval algorithms to cloud computing platforms; and covers beginning and advanced topics in mining knowledge from urban big data, beginning with fundamental data mining algorithms and progressing to advanced machine learning techniques. Urban Computing provides students, researchers, and application developers with an essential handbook to an evolving interdisciplinary field….(More)”

The Urban Commons: How Data and Technology Can Rebuild Our Communities

Book by Daniel T. O’Brien: “The future of smart cities has arrived, courtesy of citizens and their phones. To prove it, Daniel T. O’Brien explains the transformative insights gleaned from years researching Boston’s 311 reporting system, a sophisticated city management tool that has revolutionized how ordinary Bostonians use and maintain public spaces. Through its phone service, mobile app, website, and Twitter account, 311 catalogues complaints about potholes, broken street lights, graffiti, litter, vandalism, and other issues that are no one citizen’s responsibility but affect everyone’s quality of life. The Urban Commons offers a pioneering model of what modern digital data and technology can do for cities like Boston that seek both prosperous growth and sustainability.

Analyzing a rich trove of data, O’Brien discovers why certain neighborhoods embrace the idea of custodianship and willingly invest their time to monitor the city’s common environments and infrastructure. On the government’s side of the equation, he identifies best practices for implementing civic technologies that engage citizens, for deploying public services in collaborative ways, and for utilizing the data generated by these efforts.

Boston’s 311 system has narrowed the gap between residents and their communities, and between constituents and local leaders. The result, O’Brien shows, has been the creation of more effective policy and practices that reinvigorate the way citizens and city governments approach their mutual interests. By unpacking when, why, and how the 311 system has worked for Boston, The Urban Commons reveals the power and potential of this innovative system, and the lessons learned that other cities can adapt…(More)”.

Smart cities could be lousy to live in if you have a disability

Elizabeth Woyke in MIT Technology Review: “People with disabilities affecting mobility, vision, hearing, and cognitive function often move to cities to take advantage of their comprehensive transit systems and social services. But US law doesn’t specify how municipalities should design and implement digital services for disabled people. As a result, cities sometimes adopt new technologies that can end up causing, rather than resolving, problems of accessibility.

Nowhere was this more evident than with New York City’s LinkNYC kiosks, which were installed on sidewalks in 2016 without including instructions in Braille or audible form. Shortly after they went in, the American Federation for the Blind sued the city. The suit was settled in 2017 and the kiosks have been updated, but Pineda says touch screens in general are still not fully accessible to people with disabilities.

Also problematic: the social-media-based apps that some municipal governments have started using to solicit feedback from residents. Blind and low-vision people typically can’t use the apps, and people over 65 are less likely to, says James Thurston, a vice president at the nonprofit G3ict, which promotes accessible information and communication technologies. “Cities may think they’re getting data from all their residents, but if those apps aren’t accessible, they’re leaving out the voices of large chunks of their population,” he says….

Even for city officials who have these issues on their minds, knowing where to begin can be difficult. Smart Cities for All, an initiative led by Thurston and Pineda, aims to help by providing free, downloadable tools that cities can use to analyze their technology and find more accessible options. One is a database of hundreds of pre-vetted products and services. Among the entries are Cyclomedia, which uses lidar data to determine when city sidewalks need maintenance, and ZenCity, a data analytics platform that uses AI to gauge what people are saying about a city’s level of accessibility. 

This month, the group will kick off a project working with officials in Chicago to grade the city on how well it supports people with disabilities. One key part of the project will be ensuring the accessibility of a new 311 phone system being introduced as a general portal to city services. The group has plans to expand to several other US cities this year, but its ultimate aim is to turn the work into a global movement. It’s met with governments in India and Brazil as well as Sidewalk Labs, the Alphabet subsidiary that is developing a smart neighborhood in Toronto….(More)”.

Los Angeles Accuses Weather Channel App of Covertly Mining User Data

Jennifer Valentino-DeVries and Natasha Singer in The New York Times: “The Weather Channel app deceptively collected, shared and profited from the location information of millions of American consumers, the city attorney of Los Angeles said in a lawsuit filed on Thursday.

One of the most popular online weather services in the United States, the Weather Channel app has been downloaded more than 100 million times and has 45 million active users monthly.

The government said the Weather Company, the business behind the app, unfairly manipulated users into turning on location tracking by implying that the information would be used only to localize weather reports. Yet the company, which is owned by IBM, also used the data for unrelated commercial purposes, like targeted marketing and analysis for hedge fundsaccording to the lawsuit

In the complaint, the city attorney excoriated the Weather Company, saying it unfairly took advantage of its app’s popularity and the fact that consumers were likely to give their location data to get local weather alerts. The city said that the company failed to sufficiently disclose its data practices when it got users’ permission to track their location and that it obscured other tracking details in its privacy policy.

“These issues certainly aren’t limited to our state,” Mr. Feuer said. “Ideally this litigation will be the catalyst for other action — either litigation or legislative activity — to protect consumers’ ability to assure their private information remains just that, unless they speak clearly in advance.”…(More)”.

Understanding Smart Cities: Innovation ecosystems, technological advancements, and societal challenges

Introduction of Special Issue of Technological Forecasting and Social Change by Francesco PaoloAppio, MarcosLima, and Sotirios Paroutis: “Smart Cities initiatives are spreading all around the globe at a phenomenal pace. Their bold ambition is to increase the competitiveness of local communities through innovation while increasing the quality of life for its citizens through better public services and a cleaner environment. Prior research has shown contrasting views and a multitude of dimensions and approaches to look at this phenomenon. In spite of the fact that this can stimulate the debate, it lacks a systematic assessment and an integrative view. The papers in the special issue on “Understanding Smart Cities: Innovation Ecosystems, Technological Advancements, and Societal Challenges” take stock of past work and provide new insights through the lenses of a hybrid framework. Moving from these premises, we offer an overview of the topic by featuring possible linkages and thematic clusters. Then, we sketch a novel research agenda for scholars, practitioners, and policy makers who wish to engage in – and build – a critical, constructive, and conducive discourse on Smart Cities….(More)”.