City Data: Valuing Citizens

One of the perks of my job is I get the opportunity on a regular basis to get together with smart people to discuss the implications of data generated by smart cities.

A hot topic when it comes to city data governance is privacy. While it’s critical we get data privacy right, I liken data privacy to wearing pants – it’s something you should do everyday and check regularly. Of course, we need to get privacy and security right if smart cities are to realize their potential; nearly everyone agrees on this point. Here, the discussion is about the best way to achieve our shared goals.

But, a discussion I think governments, citizens, and tech companies need to have about smart city data is how to properly value it. As part of the open government movement, there is a school of thought that data generated from government-owned infrastructure in smart cities should be free. After all, citizens paid for the infrastructure and should have open access to the resulting data. That seems to be the default position for many when we start talking about smart city data.

That concerns me.

The challenge with making this data free to everyone is it also makes it free to large, data-driven multinationals – companies who can use it to increase the value of the vast amount of data they already have. That might make their business more efficient or provide an opportunity to offer new products and services. But, the resulting value generated will reside within those companies. The citizens who generated the data won’t benefit.

That’s a huge problem.

Creating smart cities will involve investment in new, data-generating infrastructure at a time when many cities are struggling just to keep their existing infrastructure in good repair. In fact, the Canadian Infrastructure Report Card found that this country’s municipalities hold $1.1 trillion of municipal infrastructure assets – and 35% of those assets are in fair, poor, or very poor condition. Updating and modernizing this infrastructure will require investment. And in the public sector, investment typically requires taxpayer dollars.

Having invested in smart city infrastructure and generated the data, I think it’s reasonable for citizens to expect to see benefit. To deliver that means looking at how the resulting data will be used.

If an organization uses smart city data, for example, to map the safest and fastest routes for cyclists across the city and offers that information free to all citizens, that group is providing citizen benefit and should be able to access the needed smart city data free of charge.

But, if a courier company uses real-time traffic data to optimize their routes, improving their productivity and profit margins – there is no broad citizen benefit. In those cases, I think it’s fair to ask those organizations to pay to access the needed city data, providing a revenue stream cities can then use to improve city services for all.

I’ve done a deeper dive on this topic in a opinion piece I wrote for the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business: read Free City Data: A Giveaway to Big Tech (requires subscription).

Smart cities offer tremendous potential to improve the quality of life for the growing number of people living in cities. When looking at how to value the data, I think ensuring citizens see benefits from the data they are generating should be at the center of the conversation.