Beyond ‘Smart Cities’– Human Data Interaction and the Future of the City

This theme, led by Matthew Chalmers and Alan Munro (U. Glasgow), was the second of nine from the EPSRC Network Plus in Human Data Interaction (HDI) to run.

It asks: Has the day of ‘future cities’ passed? Also called ‘smart cities’, and other names, this research area seems to be becoming retrograde. In practice, it has tended to drive towards a centralised approach to data, characteristic of mainstream Internet firms, and the concomitant increase in operational models based on institutional efficiency and on profiling via personal data—a burgeoning but often hidden model of operation that some fearfully call the ‘black box society’.  As expressed in an H2020 call (ICT-12-2016), ‘current centralised platforms for big and social data management consolidate the dominance of existing incumbent actors, stifling innovation and allowing less and less control over the data by citizens’. 

In other words, ‘smart cities’ is too often about making civic authorities’ operations more efficient, with little choice, agency or negotiability for the individual citizen. It’s about making everyone’s refuse collection more efficient, traffic flows smoother, and predictive policing more accurate, and not about finding good places to meet up with friends, understanding what ‘active travel’ approach would suit the individual citizen, or how their work or activity is (or is not) taking them towards good health or a better life. City and civic digital services grind on in the background, often ignored by citizens who prefer to use individualistic commercial apps and services. Stark exceptions occur when civic services are only available digitally, and then issues of social inclusion rear their head. For example, roughly 10% of adults in the city of Glasgow cannot use an alphanumeric keyboard, let alone a web-based service for benefits—as the film I, Daniel Blake evoked eloquently. Also, the topic of smart cities is biased towards metropolitan life; it tends to ignore extension of its ideas to suit rural areas, and the interdependence of urban and rural, to its own detriment.

This call has funded three projects, as described below:

More-than-Human: data interactions in the smart city

Dr. Sara Heitlinger (City University) et al.

The overarching aim of the project is to design data interactions in the smart city for more inclusive and sustainable urban cohabitation. This is aimed at expanding the ways that interaction is understood. More-than-human interactions, including data interactions, are ways of extending the notion of ‘smartness’ in cities and addressing some of the shortcomings of how design directs attention to interactions of some types but not others. Our specific aims are: to develop new ways to include more-than-human entities that are essential for urban flourishing, such as animals, plants and insects, and de-centre the human in data interactions in smart cities; to find new roles that data could have across future urban interactions that better account for the interdependencies that constitute more-than-human smart cities; and to broaden our perspectives of urban sustainability beyond the dominant top-down, modernist, efficiency-led and behavioural-change narratives typical in human-centred perspectives of data within smart cities

Data Negotiability in Multi-Mode Communication Networks

Dr. Poonam Yadav (University of York) et al.

As the concept of the smart city is growing from abstract ideas and a lab environment to real deployments, many intelligent sensor-based IoT applications are emerging. Some of these applications use a camera or audio-based sensors in public spaces such as streets, parks, train stations, public squares and stadiums. Many of these deployments are used for a specific purpose and dedicated infrastructure is setup for the applications, for example, City council CCTV (close circuit television) installed in streets and public spaces for security surveillance. Similarly, the InLinkUK free wifi kiosk​s in public spaces installed by BT provides dedicated free internet service with the partnership of an advertising company. All these examples are independent solutions in the public space. If these resources and infrastructure could be shared, this will create new services and better co-created smart cities and speed up the deployment of new services in an economical way. In order to deploy many of these smart sensor-based applications using shared infrastructure and resources, a well-structured data negotiation framework is required which complies with GDPR data regulations as well as citizen’s privacy in public places. To understand this further, we need to investigate the following questions for building the data legibility and negotiability framework:

  • Q1: Who supports the necessary public IoT infrastructure, and why?
  • Q2: Who will benefit from this infrastructure and what are the ethical, cultural, social, technical and economic barriers in achieving full benefit?
  • Q3: Who has access to the public space citizen data and how this data is going to be used?
  • Q4: What current mechanisms are used to take data usage consent from an end-user and how they are informed by other service users and providers that are involved in the whole ecosystem ?

BREATHE — IoT in the Wild

Dr Katharine Willis (University of  Plymouth) et al.

The aim of the project is to understand if we can help people in rural communities breathe more easily, by sharing breathing data in an IOT ‘in the wild’ test bed network. It will investigate both the challenges of gathering, managing and sharing data for those living in a rural community and the benefits of access to ‘fresh air’ in rural, wild settings can be combined through sharing and visualising data. The aim of the project is to test ‘in the wild’ interactions with data to understand how Internet of Things technologies work off grid and in areas of poor connectivity in ‘wild’ rur-al settings. It will look at the way that data interactions can create agency for people with health problems in rural communities in a three way model: IoT data, isolated rural places and health problems. To achieve this it will achieve the following objectives:

  • Breathing networks: We will test the implementation of a network of people creating and sharing data on breathing through a LoRaWAN IoT pilot as part of the South West IoT network
  • A breath of fresh air: The project will test bed a low power IoT network in a rural and isolated communities with little or no connectivity in Cornwall, UK.
  • Breathe together: We will evaluate the benefits of the project for improving health outcomes for those with breathing problems in health by partnering with the ‘Breathers’ support groups and EPIC project
  • All breathe: Test if the project can be replicated in isolated, rural communities elsewhere in UK, through partnership with Edinburgh IoT testbed working in highlands and islands of Scotland.

Initial Workshop – Beyond ‘Smart Cities’ – Royal Society, Edinburgh

These projects were based on initial workshop, which scoped the themes, and which led to a call based on the following topics:

  • Redesigning councils around data tech: too often, procurement processes are the bane of smart cities work, so: how can cities work in better ways? How can a city deflect the commercial push towards large-scale systems that are ‘canned’ generic products, rather than systems designed with and for it?
  • Individual versus the Collective: How to deal with the way that, in smart city systems, the benefits to one person may mean costs or losses to others? Similarly, benefits to one city area may negatively affect other areas, or affect rural regions.  How to design smart city systems in ways that take account of such inequalities and interdependencies?
  • The encouragement or imposition of behaviours: Many smart city designs imply or demand behavioural changes among citizens, but who defines these, and how? How to handle the surveillance and governance issues stemming from this ‘push’ by cities upon citizens?
  • How to trust data and services? Several of our workshop participants discussed variants of a ‘citizen science’ approach to trust, in which processes of data collection, measurement and evaluation are in the hands of citizens, so that they can act in a bottom-up way to feed into the processes of urban change. How can such citizen-led approaches create utile evidence for decision-making?

We asked that projects address one or more of the tenets of HDI (legibility, agency and negotiability) and encouraged projects, if feasible, to make use of the University of Edinburgh’s IoT Testbed (, which has offered technological resources to projects within this call. (Briefly: a LoRaWAN testbed, and a real-time data visualisation and analytics platform for sensor data from that testbed.) Also, we note the technical resources were offered by IBM to HDI network projects, giving access to and no-charge use of IBM Cloud software products under the terms of IBM’s Academic Initiative. 

%d bloggers like this: