‘Living laboratories’: the Dutch cities amassing data on oblivious residents
By Saskia Naafs
In Eindhoven and Utrecht smart tech is tackling traffic, noise and crime. But with privacy laws proving futile and commercial companies in on the act, are the plans as benign as they seem?
Stratumseind in Eindhoven is one of the busiest nightlife streets in the Netherlands. On a Saturday night, bars are packed, music blares through the street, laughter and drunken shouting bounces off the walls. As the night progresses, the ground becomes littered with empty shot bottles, energy drink cans, cigarette butts and broken glass. It’s no surprise that the place is also known for its frequent fights. To change that image, Stratumseind has become one of the “smartest” streets in the Netherlands. Lamp-posts have been fitted with wifi-trackers, cameras and 64 microphones that can detect aggressive behaviour and alert police officers to altercations. There has been a failed experiment to change light intensity to alter the mood. The next plan, starting this spring, is to diffuse the smell of oranges to calm people down. The aim? To make Stratumseind a safer place.
‘Targeted supervision’ in Utrecht
Companies are getting away with it in part because it involves new applications of data. In Silicon Valley, they call it “permissionless innovation”, they believe technological progress should not be stifled by public regulations. For the same reason, they can be secretive about what data is collected in a public space and what it is used for. Often the cities themselves don’t know.
‘A smart city is a privatised city’
Hof gives the example of CityTec, a company that manages 2,000 car parks, 30,000 traffic lights and 500,000 lamp-posts across the Netherlands. It refused to share with municipalities the data it was collecting through its lamp-post sensors. “Their argument was that, although the municipality is legally owner of the lamp-posts, CityTec is the economic owner and, for competitive reasons, did not want to make the data available,” Hof says. This was three years ago, but for a lot of companies it remains standard practice. Companies dictate the terms, and cities say they can’t share the contracts because it contains “competition-sensitive information.”
Morozov’s fear about public subsidies being used for private innovation is well illustrated in Assen, a city of 70,000 people in the north of the country. Assen built a fibre-optic network for super-fast internet in 2011, to which it connected 200 sensors that measure, among other things, the flow of cars. There was an experiment to steer people around traffic jams, even though traffic in the city is relatively light.
The city also connected its traffic lights, parking garages and parking signs to this grid. The cost of €46m was split between Brussels, the national government, the province and the municipality. Companies such as the car navigation firm TomTom have used the sensor network to test new services. The project, called Sensor City, filed for bankruptcy a year ago. Now the publicly funded fibre-optic network, sensors and all, will be sold to a still-unidentified private company. The municipality will have to strike a deal with the new owner about the use of its public traffic lights and parking signs. View original article: here
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