Here’a an excellent piece on the promise and peril of “smart cities,” which could be part of a system to make cities fairer and more transparent, or could form the basis for an authoritarian lockdown. As Adam Greenfield says, “[the centralized model of the smart city is] disturbingly consonant with the exercise of authoritarianism.” The author mentions Greenfield’s upcoming book “The City is Here for You to Use” (a very promising-looking read) as well as Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia, which is out in the fall.
These critics are advocating not that cities shun technology, but that they foster a more open debate about how best to adopt it—and a public airing of the questions cities need to ask. One question is how deeply cities rely on private companies to set up and maintain the systems they run on. Smart-city projects rely on sophisticated infrastructure that municipal governments aren’t capable of creating themselves, Townsend points out, arguing that the more they rely on software, the more cities are increasingly shunting important civic functions and information into private hands. In recent talks and in his upcoming book, “Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia,” Townsend portrays companies as rushing to become the indispensable middlemen without which the city cannot function.
Cities can easily lose leverage to private companies their citizens rely on, as the persistent battles of political leaders against telecom companies over price increases show. And private-sector software can operate behind a veil: Townsend says that while cities have made lots of data freely available online, there’s less concern about opening up the proprietary tools used to analyze that data—software that might help a city official decide who is eligible for services, or which neighborhoods are crime hotspots. “It’s the algorithms in government that need to be brought out to the light of day, not the data,” he says. “What I worry about are the de facto laws that are being coded in software without public scrutiny.”
Another concern is what will be done to protect the huge amount of data cities can gather about their citizens. The wealth of video at the Boston Marathon bombings, though it came from private cameras, showed how useful surveillance footage can be—and also how pervasive. Cameras, sensors, and tracking technologies like the Mass Pike’s EZPass can reveal a great deal about your life: where you live and travel, what you buy, even what time you take a shower. Smart grid utility-metering systems, for instance, collect and transmit detailed energy consumption information, which help consumers understand and curb their energy use but can also reveal their habits. As such, they have come under fire for threatening privacy and civil liberties, and several states have adopted legislation governing what kind of data can be shared with third parties and how customers can opt out. In Massachusetts, automated license plate recognition technology used by police cruisers
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