Project Management Institute

Privacy Patrol

Smart City Teams Must Focus on Protecting People's Data

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Smart cities run on data—using everything from parking meter fees to electricity usage to drive greater efficiency and safety. But data from people can also be highly profitable, leaving some groups urging greater requirements around how smart-city projects collect and distribute information.

A study by researchers at Canada's McMaster University found that when it comes to smart cities, 88 percent of people are concerned about their privacy. And because smart-city data is generally collected in the public space, there is no means for someone to necessarily opt in or out of a privacy agreement. That means it is up to local governments to provide the privacy framework for such projects.

Private firms typically approach city governments to integrate a new technology they otherwise would struggle to find project funding for, Jennifer Clark, author of Uneven Innovation: The Work of Smart Cities, told the American Planning Association. “Because cities are very concerned about being left behind, they often perceive themselves to have less leverage in those negotiations than the firm,” she said. “So they essentially say, ‘Great, you guys can extract data if we get this infrastructure for free.’”

Several U.S. cities—including Seattle, Washington; Portland, Oregon; and New York, New York—are implementing policies around what can be done with citizens’ collected data. City officials may be taking a lesson learned from Toronto, Ontario, Canada—on what not to do. Toronto was set to be home to a smart city initiative designed by Google's Sidewalk Labs. Yet stakeholder outcries over an inchoate privacy policy have plagued the project, slowing progress.

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