Dutch tv recently aired a fascinating documentary on the «smart city» phenomenon. Companies like Google are teaming up with local governments to further expand their already huge datasets on human behaviour, raising the spectre of total control and absence of privacy (someone used the word panoptical).
Proponents claim the smart city will make cities more efficient and perhaps even sustainable. But judging by the examples given by Amsterdam’s smart city czar (he was quoted in the same documentary), the main beneficients may well be motorists. Big data is used to help them navigate their car through the city and find a place to park it. In fact, only one out of Amsterdam’s ~100 smart city projects even mentions the word fiets (bicycle).
And now Strava wants my commute data. They’ve proclaimed tomorrow, the 10th of May, Bike to Work Day. If you’ll upload your ride to work, they promise to make your commutes count:
With data like this, cities can better understand how people choose to interact with the network of roads, bike paths and intersections. The result is improved decision-making, smarter planning, safer streets and more people biking, running and walking. Better data is a catalyst for change.
Bringing a bit more balance to the smart city phenomenon by adding lots of cycling data sounds like a good idea. But will it work? When a very similar initiative was run by Dutch cyclists’ organisation Fietsersbond, Bicycle Count Week, a critic argued that some of the worst bicycle infrastructure in Amsterdam can easily be identified without recording any rides. These problems remain unsolved not for lack of data, but for lack of political will.
Personally, I’d argue that data can be useful, if used critically. But I’m not sure the interpretation of data should be left to the smart city alliance of local governments and corporations.
So will I upload my ride to work tomorrow? To be honest, I’ll probably forget to record it in the first place.
The smart city documentary, part of VPRO’s Tegenlicht series, can be seen in Dutch here. The VPRO has translated some of its Tegenlicht (Backlight) documentaries, but I don’t think this one is available in English yet.