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improved urban decision making

…the smart city movement is less about technology and more about improving the way decisions are made in large urban areas, where the demand for services is increasing and the availability of resources is diminishing.”

Michael Flowers, as interpreted by Mike Barlow in a 2015 O’Reilly report, Smart Cities, Smarter Citizens. Flowers is now chief analytics officer at Enigma.io.

Deciding “simple numbers” calls for collaboration boosters

Users of data often ask for “simple numbers.” But the data experts who sit across the table can only clear their throats and reply with a question: Which of the many possible numbers do you mean?

Answering that may be tougher for smart cities than for business, I imagine. In business, both sides of the table are likely to share values and context. But as cities open the data spigots, I expect those answers to take extra bits of “smart.” That calls for tools that give collaboration a gentle boost.

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Dumbstruck city: big, brittle, not so smart

A city that seems smart one moment can look like the dumbest thing alive the next moment. All it takes is one little cloud outage.

We’ve taken cloud outages in stride. After all, how often does it really matter if you place an Amazon order now or in an hour or two? But what if the cloud locks or unlocks your front door?

Fainting ladies

I’ve been reading up on “smart cities.” Anthony Townsend, in his article “Smart Cities: Buggy and Brittle” — from 2013 and still fresh — says yes, worry. Start with the cellular networks.

Cellular networks … are the fainting ladies of the network world — when the heat is on, they’re the first to go down and make the biggest fuss as they do so.

All networks are vulnerable, and outages have ever higher stakes.

Cloud-computing outages could turn smart cities into zombies. Biometric authentication, for instance, which senses our unique physical characteristics to identify individuals, will increasingly determine our rights and privileges as we move through the city — granting physical access to buildings and rooms, personalizing environments, and enabling digital services and content.

But biometric authentication is a complex task that will demand access to remote data and computation. The keyless entry system at your office might send a scan of your retina to a remote data center to match against your personnel record before admitting you. Continuous authentication, a technique that uses always-on biometrics — your appearance, gestures, or typing style — will constantly verify your identity, potentially eliminating the need for passwords. Such systems will rely heavily on cloud computing, and will break down when it does.

Why “smart cities” is interesting, first look

At first, the term “smart cities” may sound like just another bit of fluff — another one of the data industry’s fascinations. It did to me. But I’ve been reading about it, and I’ve come to think that the reality may hold real benefits for the data industry — more than just a new market for bright, shiny products.

Definitions vary, of course, but the term seems to boil down to this: It’s the use of data from the Internet of Things and other sources to squeeze more use, more security, and even more pleasure from city facilities, utilities, roads, transit, and other public resources. City administrators can spend less, for example, to make data guide drivers around congestion than to build a new lane.

You might say, well, that’s just the old dream: data analysis fixes everything! Yeah, we’ve heard that one before. But I think this is different when you try this in cities instead of businesses.

Cities and businesses both know how to hide things. But they’re different. Business executives can pretend everything’s humming along like air conditioning blowing cool air on cool heads. City officials, meanwhile, fear the hot heads, the activists, the ever growing and ever-smarter legions of data crunchers.

In cities, smell and dysfunction is in everyone’s face and nose. If it’s impossible to drive across San Francisco at four on a weekday afternoon, you know it— and people learn to assume there’s data on it somewhere. They look in the data mirror to examine it. Is it as bad as it felt? How long did it last? What caused it, and what’s being done about it? The data mirror becomes part of life. You just step in it.

That’s a fine dream, of course. But users of restaurant ratings and other attempts at quasi-public data know that such visions don’t always come true. Who hasn’t relied on public raves for restaurants or movies to find they were fooled?

Even so, I suspect that the public nature of smart-city data will give a nudge to common data pathologies. If dysfunction is in your ears and nose, smart community organizers have a strong lever on reluctant officials. Hey guys, break down the silos. Where’s the data you promised? Hey, your data stinks.

Smart cities in full flower can do even more than offer efficiency and safety. They can also make people feel good. That might be the most interesting benefit of all.

Daniele Quercia, for example, offers an “alternate agenda.” He advocates, among other things, letting data point to slightly-less-than-efficient paths between A and B that are more fun, more beautiful, or more interesting. (See his crowdsourced “happy maps” and “smelly maps.”) Who wants to live in bare, cold efficiency? Not successful people, many of whom have a good pick of places to live and work.

Imagine: data that makes you feel good.

I’ve just started looking at smart cities. I’m probably naive about some things. But so far, I think smart cities is worth attention.