Skip to main content

Smart cities: Who owns the data?

Cities use technology to assist residents, and data is a byproduct of that effort. But who owns the data and how it's used is up for debate, and it often depends on where you live.

In the early days of the petroleum industry, refiners wanted to produce kerosene, which was useful for lighting and other industrial processes. But the refining process also created a lighter waste product that they just burned off because no one wanted it. That byproduct was called "gasoline."

Times change and needs evolve, and so does the understanding of what's valuable and what's a waste product. With the rise of sensor-based technologies and applications, including smart cities, there is an increasing understanding that the data being thrown off may be even more valuable than the actual services that are at the heart of the smart cities movement.

As with anything of newly understood value, some important questions are emerging: Who owns all this data, and who should profit from it if it's sold? Furthermore, it's not at all clear who owns the analysis that's based on the data: the public, the data's owner (whoever that may be), or the company that performs the analysis?

Smart cities, connected citizens

It should not be a surprise that the answer to those questions differ vastly from city to city and from application to application. Each city, after all, has its unique needs, history, and political structure—and customs and regulation differ wildly around the world. Ricardo Tavares, CEO of consulting company TechPolis, says it may not be a coincidence that lots of advanced work on smart cities is happening in the emirates of the Middle East's Gulf Cooperation Council, where the competing interests characteristic of a democracy are less of a hindrance.

For that matter, the definition of smart city lies somewhat in the eye of the beholder. There's a general agreement that smart cities are those that use technology to deliver services to their residents. On a simple level, that might be something like letting people pay parking tickets or see sanitation department schedules on their phones. On a more sophisticated level, it might mean using data to predict water usage or installing microphones that help police quickly figure out the location of gunshots.

Whichever version of a smart city you subscribe to, these technologies all have one thing in common: Besides the services they provide, they throw off massive amounts of data. And as businesses have discovered, data is a byproduct that might be as exploitable as gasoline was for early oil refiners.

Moscow has a particularly interesting experiment in data ownership. Rather than spending $500 million to install a network of 170,000 security cameras, says Andrey Belorezov, the city's deputy CIO, the city government asked private industry to install them. Moscow pays a per-minute fee that comes to $250 million a year to access only the data it needs. Besides shifting the cost from a capital to an operating budget, the savings goes to the city's education budget. At Mobile World Congress earlier this year, Belorezov suggested that instead of creating new costs, cities should "create new business models attractive for private investment."

The top emerging technologies that will shape our future

Tavares says the Moscow example is unusual, although public/private partnerships are not uncommon. He pointed out that police frequently use data from private security cameras in investigations—the Boston Marathon bombing, for example, was solved by relying on such footage. He was not aware, however, of any other examples of cities contracting for a network and buying back only the data it needs.

One reason, says Tavares, is that privacy regulations—particularly in Europe—make the privatization of public data difficult. Another is the sense on the part of cities that the data generated by the public is a public resource that should be used solely to provide city services.

Perhaps a more prosaic reason is that most cities approach their digitization plans on an ad hoc basis, failing to integrate their data between projects or agencies. An effort called the City Protocol, chaired by Jamie Cudden, the smart city program manager in Dublin, Ireland, is working toward a common framework that will allow greater interoperability.

"The challenge," Cudden says, "is that cities operate in a very complex environment that is driven by politics, culture, budgetary constraints, silo mentalities, and a lack of technical skills in data and IoT."

Interoperability implies that application programming interfaces (APIs) are being built, and they are. Under a European Union effort called CitySDK, eight cities (Helsinki, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Lamia, Manchester, Rome, Lisbon, and Istanbul) have created an open source API focused on receiving service requests, providing access to transportation and mobility data, and creating location-based services for tourists.

Many uses of public data

In the United States, AT&T and Cisco are working with cities to build their communications infrastructure around sensors and intelligence. Each company has its own platform, and they compete to help cities gather data, analyze it, and perhaps monetize it.

The city of Dubai, for instance, has partnered with DU, a local telecom operator. "The city is very interested in the data that DU has about the movement of people, which will help in urban planning," Tavares says. "There will be a lot of openness for people to come to the joint entity and say, 'We would love to know what's the area where tourists are circulating because we'd like to open a new restaurant.' The profit that comes out of the use of the data can be a revenue share between the operator and the city."

Whether that model or the Moscow model would fly in the U.S. is an open question. Smart city projects have been promoted mostly as a way to smooth the delivery of services or save money. In most cities, civic data is publicly accessible to all comers. But Teresa Scassa, a Canadian lawyer and member of Canada's Advisory Panel on Open Government, warns that open access is not necessarily a given.

For example, if a private company installs sensors in a transit system and collects and processes the resulting data for the city, who owns the data and the resulting analysis? If a government buys data from a third party, such as GPS data from a car manufacturer, and the government makes planning decisions based on that data, the locality may not be able to share the underlying data publicly.

Cudden agrees. "The conceptual approach taken by organizations such as OASC [Open & Agile Smart Cities] on common protocols and platforms can be a real challenge to implement, especially when companies are proposing their own standards approaches," he says. "The only way to counter closed systems is to engage with cities and jointly drive this agenda. Be more forceful during the procurement process. Remember who the buyer is."

The city of Sacramento, Calif., it turns out, is doing that exact thing. The city has announced a partnership with the Google traffic app Waze, where the app shares real-time traffic data and the city supplies Waze with road-closure and construction information.

Sacramento includes open data ownership into all its contracts with outside vendors, where all of the city's data is freely available to all comers. But that's not a given for every city in every case. It's not hard to imagine a scenario where a vendor or carrier puts a camera and microphone onto every lamppost for free but charges a city for access to data about traffic or whether a streetlight is burned out.

Such a system may be OK for Moscow, Russia. But whether that's a deal Moscow, Idaho, would go for may be something to think hard about. Not unlike gasoline, public data can be a volatile byproduct.

Smart cities: Lessons for leaders

There is no shortage of advice available for cities looking to smarten up; an environment of open data results in lots of experience-sharing online. Cudden suggests several steps to approaching the data issue:

  • Get buy-in from the mayor or city manager
  • Create a cross-functional team or unit
  • Identify quick wins
  • Target procurement and new ways to engage the market
  • Be open to pilot projects
  • Demonstrate benefits to citizens

Says Cudden, "I think the bigger challenge in scaling up smart cities is not the tech, but the internal culture and lack of awareness of what the opportunity is."

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.