In smart cities, advertisers will rule

A LinkNYC kiosk in New York City. Image: Getty.

“If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product.” The phrase was coined in the 1970s to talk about television advertising, but has since become the internet’s whole business model: we get nice services, for free or for very little, and in return, our attention is sold to advertisers.

But what if that logic dominated everyday life? With the rise of the smart city, it’s becoming a reality. And local authorities should be both upfront and cautious about the risks.

Sous les pavés, la pub

In a time of disappearing budgets, it is understandable that councils will jump at any opportunity to improve their cities without spending a penny. Companies like JCDecaux and Clear Channel provide cities with street furniture such as bus stops and bicycles, in return for advertising space.

Occasionally, though, the public service aspect is all but forgotten. In 2015, JCDecaux replaced Paris’s 2,000 bus shelters with a new model. With their sleek design, the new shelters had USB ports for charging your phone, and large, digital advertising screens. The only problem? They didn’t actually provide shelter from the rain and had to be changed.

Other times, public utility is just an excuse for brand promotion, as with the “trackable water refill stations” recently installed in London by Canary Wharf Group – narcissistic water fountains with a screen that tracks the number of plastic bottles saved.

With cities desperate for innovation yet strapped for cash, advertisers have been emboldened to set their own rules. A recent report from the Outdoor Advertising Association of America talks about how the knowledge that a bus passenger is taking a specific route towards a specific destination could be used for hyper-targeted messages: “The information might include: an upcoming destination; reminders about previous purchases; points-of-interest along the way.”

This mixing of public and private usages is one way advertisers are cementing their urban domination. As one advertising CEO puts it, “The serendipitous confluence of municipal poverty and secular change in marketing practices presents a unique opportunity for a new breed of public-private partnerships.”

In reality, “public-private partnerships” often means public data being used for private ends. The best example of this took place via Intersection’s digital kiosks in New York, the LinkNYC. These kiosks were designed to replace the city’s payphones, and they feature HD screens for accessing maps, services and video calls, a phone, and USB charging ports. The “Links” are owned and operated by the CityBridge consortium, and are funded by advertising on the large screens. Last year, “InLinks” launched in the UK.

Intersection turned public data into private ad dollars last year, when it helped the beer brewing company MillerCoors run an advertising campaign in partnership with the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). MillerCoors used MTA data to detect when there were delays on certain train lines, and subsequently relayed this information alongside the slogan, “Your commute can wait” and an invitation to stop off for a beer.


Protecting data in smart cities

So where is our personal data in all of that? The future of outdoor advertising lies in the combination of two inherent features of the internet – free, advertiser-subsidised services, and targeted ads. And the latter means large-scale data collection. As Le Monde reports, the screens that companies like JCDecaux are fitting on public infrastructure “use cameras and detection systems to identify with remarkable precision the sex, age, height, weight, and geographical origins of passers-by”. In some cases, cameras even use “emotion detection”, to check if people are responding positively to the message.

The marketing possibilities are so enticing that Philippe Baudillon, president of the French branch of Clear Channel Outdoor, just published a book about smart cities, Réinventer la Street Experience. In his reimagined city, we are all connected, all the time; the street becomes a “real-life hyperlink”, sending people towards websites and social media campaigns.

The book explains that Clear Channel has also developed a tool called Consumer Audience Smart Tracking, which uses “more than 2,000 socio-behavioural criteria taken from anonymised data” to analyse consumers passing in front of a screen, “making it possible to identify not only the number of people who walk by, but also their lifestyle and consumption habits”.

Baudillon stresses that the data is used to identify and target large groups, not individuals: we don’t have to worry about the bus shelter revealing our internet history just yet. Still, with smart street furniture linked to your smartphone’s Wi-Fi, and bourgeoning facial recognition technology, hyper-targeted outdoor advertising is increasingly plausible.

Public authorities have, however, shown that they are willing to uphold privacy laws. In 2013, the company Renew London trialled recycling bins which featured LCD advertising screens, and which tracked Wi-Fi signals from pedestrians’ phones. Renew said it collected data from media access control (MAC) addresses simply to measure footfall. But after campaigners raised privacy concerns, the City of London Corporation asked Renew to halt its trial.

The French Data Protection Authority (CNIL) denied JCDecaux authorisation to collect similar data. The device would have gathered data from any smartphone users within a 25 radius of their advertising screens, meaning not everybody was likely to have seen the A4 sign notifying them of their rights, according to Osborne Clarke’s marketing law blog.

The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which came into effect in May, should give citizens even more power in such cases. Businesses are now required to share what kind of information they collect, and individuals must be able to withdraw their consent.

But this is much more complicated in a physical, public space than it is online, as the CNIL’s decision recognises. That is why the public should be consulted before projects are finalised. While free technology is always enticing, cities mustn’t forget whom they are supposed to serve, before the next big data scandal hits the streets.

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.