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The “smart city” is often synonymous with ideas that require the collection and utilization of mass amounts of data about individuals and communities. Many of these ideas have sparked excitement and optimism, as well as a concern about privacy and the collection, ownership, and use of data.

However, these discussions often treat “data” like it’s all the same and assume that everyone knows what “data” means.

In October 2018, privacy expert Teresa Scassa recommended that discussions about Quayside should “start with a mapping out of the different types of data that will be collected, by whom, for what purposes, and in what form.”

I would like us to go one step further, and require that cities create and maintain a transparent, open, accessible, and living ‘map’ that clearly outlines who is collecting and accessing what data about residents and why, in a way that is easily understood by all residents, and provides clear avenues for people to ask questions and challenge practices they might disagree with. This would enable us as a society to:

Cultivate informed civic participation

Building a stronger collective understanding of the wide variety of data and circumstances in which they might be collected would empower a broader group of residents to identify and advocate for what they’re comfortable with, what they believe adds value, and what acceptable trade-offs are.

Be precise

By ensuring we’re talking about the same things, we will have more robust public discussions and be better equipped to build fit-for-purpose data governance solutions. For example, there are significant differences between video footage taken by a CCTV camera in a public space, de-identified counts of the number of people entering and exiting a private building, and personal information on your hydro bill. By making sure that we aren’t lumping all these together, we can design governance solutions that help us avoid harm and put people first.

This kind of ‘map’ does not assume that data collection is bad. But it does assume that data collection and use is not neutral or homogeneous.

I want a more just and equitable society and I believe that, when used well, technology can be a tool to help us get there. Making this basic information more transparent and accessible, and requiring clear pathways for residents to seek redress and give consent, would put more power in the hands of citizens and better enable us to build the communities that we want, together.