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Cities need data to become smart

Data is a prerequisite for creating smart cities where applied AI, digital tools and services make things easier for inhabitants and streamline the city’s functions from a sustainable and long-term perspective. Sweden is far ahead in terms of digitalisation, but far behind many other countries when it comes to open data.
“Municipalities need to take control of their data, because without access to data there can be no data-driven innovation,” says Claus Popp Larsen, researcher in Connected Cities at RISE.

Data in cities must be accessible and of high quality. It is through city data that systems based on artificial intelligence (AI), for example, can make smart decisions.

– “Today, cities produce massive volumes of data, but it is unfortunately completely inaccessible for various reasons,” says Popp Larsen. “And data which is available, such as open data, is often low quality. Sweden is far ahead in terms of digitalisation but very far behind many other countries when it comes to access to city data. Without access to data there can be no data-driven innovation.” 

The reason Sweden is lagging behind is the result of several factors, among other things, the fact that Swedish municipalities are self-governed and that Sweden does not have basic infrastructure for data or national guidelines. Moreover, there is a certain ethical hurdle in Sweden and many individuals are wary of sharing data.  

Municipalities need to take control of their data

Data is necessary for building digital tools and services able to facilitate and streamline the city’s functions from a sustainable and long-term perspective. At present, there are essentially two types of data in cities. Open data, which is often of poor quality and rarely maintained, and closed data, which is of better quality but confined to individual administrative systems or – even worse – municipal supplier systems. A combination of these two data types is required: data that is just as accessible as open data but with the high quality of closed data.

– “Municipalities need to take control of their data. This means that they must take ownership of their data as well as structure, quality assure, and make the data available internally and externally. Municipalities with major cities are slightly better at managing their data than municipalities with smaller towns. On the other hand, smaller municipalities can be more agile. But, overall, Swedish cities have a lot to work on,” says Popp Larsen, who nevertheless has high hopes for data collected via the Internet of Things (IoT), and explains that:

– “IoT data is thus far only used in relatively limited volumes, but it is this type of data that will explode moving forward. It can be open or closed depending on how it is managed, but it’s a new type of data that enables municipalities to ‘do the right thing’ by managing the data and making it available to a greater degree than today.”

We need national standards and guidelines that all municipalities follow

National standard for scalability

Having a lot of data or high-quality data is, however, not sufficient. The data also needs to be in the same format. At present, different formats are used for data within the same municipality and among municipalities. This prevents the different systems from ‘speaking’ to each other or being scaled up.

– “We need national standards and guidelines that all municipalities follow. Quite simply, someone needs to take charge from a national level. Only once there is a common standard will conditions for scaling up be favourable. Data management in the municipalities should be viewed as a form of critical infrastructure, and Sweden as a country is too small for our municipalities to all do things differently,” says Popp Larsen.

Consequences of not following the PSI directive

The Public Sector Information (PSI) directive is an EU directive concerning the reuse of information from the public sector and, among other things, states that all data that can be made accessible in a municipality should be accessible.

– “Unfortunately, not many operators adhere to the PSI directive in Sweden. And there are no consequences for not following the directive. I think that, firstly, some form of repercussions should be in place for those who do not adhere to the directive. This will result in much more data becoming accessible, which can then be refined to provide various benefits. And for this to truly work well, the municipalities must also ensure that the data is of high quality and well-structured,” says Popp Larsen.

The authorities need to start working in new ways

AI detects patterns

We already use various types of AI on a daily basis. If your phone has facial recognition, it is AI that decides whether you can access you phone. Google’s search feature and social media use AI in their algorithms to ensure relevance and accurate search results. Facebook also utilises facial recognition where AI can recognise your face and tag you in a photo posted by someone else.

– “AI detects patterns created by a large volume of data. In Eindhoven there is a party street which is monitored by AI-assisted street cameras. They can detect when an argument begins escalating into a fight before punches are thrown and provide an exact location to the police in real time. Thanks to an immense volume of data on things like movement patterns, AI can tell that something is wrong based on the body language of those involved. A human would never be able to process that much data and alert the authorities in time. Another example is a YouTube video showing how a Tesla sends and alert about an accident in front of the car just before the accident occurs. AI makes this possible,” says Popp Larsen.

But Swedish legislation has not yet been adapted to the possibilities presented by AI.

– “The authorities need to start working in new ways. Sometimes it has to do with the way laws are interpreted, but legislation often stems from another time and does not encompass sophisticated digital tools. Although, in other ways, it may be a good that things don’t move too fast. Cameras and sensors along streets can be incredibly effective in many diverse areas of use, and they can, as mentioned, combat crime. But there’s a fine line between combating crime and becoming a surveillance state. We need to have fundamental discussions about ethics and the type of society we want to live in in the future,” says Popp Larsen.

City as a Platform

RISE currently works with data and AI in many different research projects in many diverse fields. One of these is CaaP (City as a Platform), which has brought together 18 Swedish municipalities to research, implement and collaborate on shared IoT platforms to promote societal benefits in cities. CaaP will also ensure a national rooting and propose a national administrative model to enable scalability. The idea is that if enough sufficiently large municipalities share standards and principles concerning data management, it can compensate for the current lack of national oversight.

– “The technology will simplify things for the city, its inhabitants, and suppliers. Yet there is no need for the residents of a city to see the technology; it should be there in the background making life easier for us, completely automatically and without us having to think about it,” concludes Popp Larsen.

Claus Popp Larsen

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Claus Popp Larsen

Fokusområdesledare för Uppkopplade städer

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