Even though we’re moving at lightning speed towards a truly connected future, one issue stands in the way of smart cities. Currently, every segment of the smart city ecosystem is built separately. This is sometimes due to the lack of funding, the lack of existing legislation (or the will to create a new one), or simply because we still lack the necessary components to integrate legacy systems. The result is a siloed approach that doesn’t serve the main purpose of smart cities in the first place: connectedness. This is why it is crucial to finally take a good look at data-sharing policies at a national level and enable a data-sharing future to help urban areas thrive on innovation. But how do we do that, having in mind the glaring gaps in cybersecurity and data policies we’re facing?
What is data sharing?
In an IoT network, sensors work on different levels to provide real-time information – about urban traffic, air quality, energy consumption, etc. Personal smartphones can also serve as sensors in the IoT. To achieve the goal of creating a smart city, these sensors should be able to communicate with a network of systems that gather and analyse the information from them. In some instances, the sensors might also need to communicate with each other. When this gigantic pool of data is put to use, it can help improve many aspects of the urban environment.
In its essence, data sharing relies on creating a system architecture that enables communication between sensors and all available smart systems in a city.
How does data sharing help us achieve smart goals?
Currently, many cities are trying to solve decades-old issues with their infrastructure – from traffic and public transportation to energy efficiency and more recently, sustainability. In this battle against time, data becomes indispensable. More and more new systems are deployed that collect and use data to improve efficiency. The problem is that these systems often operate in isolation. This siloed approach to data is limited in scope and rarely achieves the target goals.
With data-sharing policies in place, the systems that make up a city’s evolving infrastructure can operate more efficiently. If intelligent traffic systems can sync to public transportation, both systems can facilitate the reduction of congestion and carbon emissions. Energy-efficient buildings and industries can communicate with energy providers to reallocate resources in real time. Wastewater testing is currently becoming a reliable method to detect an approaching new wave of COVID-19 so that it can be prevented.
What’s stopping cities from using data sharing?
There are a few stoppers along the way of data sharing: security concerns, building smart systems one at a time, and lack of regulations are some of the most prominent ones.
Cybersecurity has always been an issue when it comes to connectedness. Companies and city administration units still opt to invest in expensive and hard-to-maintain on-prem solutions for their digital infrastructure in order to avoid gaps in their security leading to data leaks or hacks – even in the age of cloud technologies. This has been the way most critical city systems have been built over the years, too. As some governments have already discovered, connecting these systems so that they can exchange data is costly and is not bullet-proof as hacks still happen – and it’s ironic that sometimes hackers exploit gaps in the connection channels themselves. Yet, this is still the way many cities choose to operate instead of transitioning to new systems built specifically with the idea of sharing data – with security as a priority and prerogative.
Another problem along the way is that transitioning to a data-sharing model across a whole city is expensive and may take time to be implemented correctly. This is an endeavor way beyond the scope of a single mayor’s term and if a specific, long-term strategy isn’t in place, innovation can easily be swept aside by urgent matters.
Lack of regulations is another part of the spectrum of problems that lie in the way of data-sharing economies. As technology evolves so quickly, we still don’t have the necessary regulations in place to vouch for its safety and establish what it means to implement it correctly. This problem is mainly visible in areas where people are directly affected – such as micromobility.
How can we overcome the obstacles?
The concerns we outlined are all valid and we need to have a hard look at how we approach data sharing. This means creating models that rely on trust – a very difficult task in the current climate of mistrust created by the abusive data-sharing practices of big tech companies.
To establish a framework of trust, governments need to set parameters for how data is used and for how long. Using only the best possible standards to deliver better-connected services, we can gradually ease the inherent mistrust in technology. 42% of respondents in a recent survey said that they are willing to trade some privacy for better services. We need to work to improve this metric and involve as many citizens as possible in smart city initiatives so that they can benefit from the data-sharing economy and see the difference it makes to everyday life.
COVID-19 played a key role in this fight. It catalyzed the need to provide more transparent models of data sharing and many contact-tracing apps were built to help improve public health. As the smart tech momentum from the pandemic fades, we need to learn the lessons it taught us and approach data sharing security-first.
The EU and the US have made gargantuan efforts to provide a basis for data protection with their GDPR and CCPA legislation. Unfortunately, both are failing to stay up to date with the changing challenges and provide us with the necessary trust-based tools to advance smart city initiatives. While they might have been groundbreaking at the time and we acknowledge their significance, we need to learn from their shortcomings and move with technology – that is, be quick and agile in our approach to data sharing.
While we only scratched the surface of the data-sharing problems governments and cities are facing today, it is clear that we have a long way to go before we can safely say that we have created a true smart city project based on 100% connectedness. Even then we will need to adapt further based on the information we gather. We can always do better.