Most cities are already ‘smart’ – just, not for the people who live in them

Hyde Park, London, where even your walks are now monitored. Image: Getty.

Ask people around you if they live in a smart city, and more likely than not they will answer that they don’t. I can tell you that because I have tried.

When giving talks about this very topic in cities like Berlin, The Hague and Stockholm, I always ask this question at the start. The rough ratio I tend to get is that: 15 per cent hesitantly raise their hand to say they do, 60 per cent don’t, 20 per cent just look confused and 5 per cent are not listening.

And yet most people who live in cities do live in smart cities – In so far as our governments are investing in these projects, and relying on technologies and data collection in an attempt to improve the quality of live in our cities.

We can’t blame people for their ignorance when even governments don’t seem too confident about what a smart city is. The Smart Cities Mission – an Indian government body in charge of developing smart cities across India – has admitted that “smart cities mean different things to different people”. And despite spending the equivalent of $15bn on smart city projects, the Indian government has refused to set standards for what constitutes ‘smart’, arguing against setting “a-priori standards for Smart Cities to achieve”.

In fact, governments and corporations have all come up with their own ‘vision’ of what a smart city is. Even the World Bank admits the ambiguity of the term and offers two very different possible definitions.

Yet, behind the marketing term – however meaningless – there is a worrying trend that Privacy International has documented in our latest report “Smart cities: utopian vision, dystopian reality”. The smart city projects we see being developed promote a vision of cities as a nervous system where information coming from sensors are relayed to a brain, which often takes the shape of an operations centre – a centralised control room where CCTV footage and data from the sensors are processed and visualised. These operation centres are used in cities as varied as New York, Rio de Janeiro, Singapore and Jakarta, among many others.


IBM – the company that reportedly came up with the term smart city back in 2008 – has been central in the development of this narrative across the world. Other companies, like Google, Siemens and Microsoft – whose business involve the development of artificial intelligence to process large amount of data – have also contributed to the current trend of smart cities revolving around the mass generation and collection of data.

On paper, it all sounds great: the more information we have, the better the city. But what’s the trade off? If we track people’s steps on the tube, Transport for London will provide better services. But why didn’t TfL tell us it intended to make a profit from the collection of our data before it started tracking us?

If we install smart meters, people will get better at saving energy. But do we realise smart meters mean our government and corporations will know when we’re home and when we’re out? How about our bedtimes, when we shower or bathe, or when we use the kettle or espresso machine? Are we aware that the time we wake up or our electricity consumption on certain days can reveal sensitive information like our religious practices? And do we realise this is precisely the sort of data companies are after to define our credit scores or how much we should be paying for health insurance?

The reason people don’t realise they live in a smart city is because the city has not become smart for them. The use of technology by local governments is still yet to radically improve our experiences in public spaces.

But that does not mean our cities have not changed. Creepily, our cities have become places of constant surveillance where even your walks in Hyde Park are monitored. Our bins know more about us than we probably want them to.

With the development of the so-called Internet of Things, where the objects we use are connected to the internet, the opportunities for data collection are only increasing. In fact, for IBM citizens have become nothing short of walking sensors: “Even without any investment in sensor networks, today’s cities already contain millions of the most intelligent and versatile ‘sensors’ that have ever existed: human beings. A public-spirited citizen with a smartphone is an incredibly valuable source of data for government agencies, because they will provide accurate feedback on the status of the city’s systems in real time.”

Being in the public space does not extinguish our right to privacy. In fact, it may well be where it is needed most. Cities are historically where public dissent and civil disobedience happen. Repressive regimes know this, which explains why there is such an appetite for smart city technology in some countries.

It is time we start rethinking what a genuinely ‘smart’ city would look like. We need to put human rights at the centre of how we think about urbanisation. We need to think about the less-abled and those who do not have access to technology. We need to ensure our cities will be smart for women and transgender people.

This is our responsibility. Companies that think of human beings as sensors will not be having this debate for us.

Eva Blum-Dumontet is a research officer at Privacy International.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.