The smarticipate project revolves around the smarticipate platform, a web-connected solution that allows citizens to interact in a new way with their local government. Jan Peters-Anders of the Austrian Institute of Technology (AIT) and Jens Dambruch of Fraunhofer IGD are the project partners chiefly in charge of technically developing the platform.

The article below is the first part of an interview that took place in April 2018. To view part 2, click here.

From an open data point of view, what was the situation in the three partner cities when the smarticipate project began?

JAN: At the outset, it was not clear what the situation would be in the cities – we found this out during the first year through exchange with our city partners. Many of the colleagues in the project are coming from different perspectives: In Hamburg the colleagues are coming from a unit that is dealing with spatial (GIS) data (on the technical side, but not the content side), in Rome they are more science based, in London the colleagues were looking at city planning but did not have an in-depth knowledge of what data was available in the city.

Hamburg was the most advanced in terms of data availability and was already running parallel citizen participation projects. If we think of it like a clock, with 12 O’Clock being 100 percent in terms of smart citizen participation, Hamburg are maybe 5 minutes before 12!

London has a very different approach and involves the private sector to a greater degree, with businesses using (and producing!) city data, more than in other cities in Europe. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) wants to show the citizens what they are planning to build, for example, and then citizens are allowed to comment, but they are unable to change the city’s proposal. It’s a more closed system with less participatory aspects.

From the Rome perspective, they have a lot of data but it is not available openly yet, so it’s difficult to use for the project. It’s a very politically different situation in Rome.

There was varying feedback from those who have tested the smarticipate prototype at the second Smartathons, some of it positive, some of it negative. How do you respond?

JAN: The problem was that it was not clear what [the partner cities] will be presented with. In Rome, people who attended the second Smartathon got the impression they would have a completed system to work with, which wasn’t the case, since the platform is still under development. So they didn’t like too much what they were seeing because it wasn’t fully developed. For the Rome participants, it seemed that there wasn’t a big change compared to the first Smartathon. In London they could see the change, as the first Smartathon was just mock ups and discussion, while the second showed an online platform, on your mobile phone or on your desktop computer.

In Hamburg people were asking what the difference is and complained that the functionality is limited. People were not aware that smarticipate is not about creating a tree app for Hamburg, or revitalizing buildings in Rome or showing a 3D map in London – smarticipate is about creating a generic system that allows for thousands of different topics to be tackled. This is something people didn’t get. If you think of the platform as just being these three apps then the project budget would be very high, of course.

They couldn’t see the full potential because we were not at a stage where we could show them other government data sets on different topics being used to create something interesting. We struggled to get this “potential” angle across. We need to show how to create topics in the backend, and to elaborate on the examples in the three cities, making it clear that these are just test cases.

At the final conference, we hope to reach out to different associations to see that they can create different topics within the platform if you have the right data. As part of this, we also need to focus on how we can get that data and what data is needed.

JENS: In Rome, for example, they’re used to working with commercial programmes, and their expectation was for something that is completely developed. Instead, we asked them what they need and what would help them in terms of a public participation platform. We spoke a lot about requirements and tried to create interesting prototypes based on use cases they found relevant. Smarticipate is ahead of its time in a way.

Are all cities in a position to meet the city data requirements of the platform?

JENS: Oftentimes, cities won’t have either the data or the processes in place to take advantage of the smarticipate platform. Sometimes they’ll have the data, but aren’t aware of it – the data could be used by businesses in a commercial sense, but not by the city.

Now we have this app, but the challenge is to integrate it into the city’s systems, and to make it useful for them within their processes and way of working.

JAN: When we said that we are using open data collected by governments, in some cities the citizens were excited but also surprised: We explained it was data open to citizens (since it was collected with tax money) and they were surprised it was out there. From the technical side, as experts we sometimes believe working with this data is normal, but for the citizens it is usually not.

In cities, if a process seems to work you continue to use that process – even if an open data portal exists it doesn’t mean each city department is using it. They often rather use their traditional way of working, which is normal, particularly as cities need to be risk-averse.

It’s not so much about gaps in open government data – many cities have a lot of data sets – it’s more about how to use a tool like smarticipate using this data.

How can you convince more politicians that smarticipate is a good investment?

JENS: We need to put up some examples that show how smarticipate can make something better. That will get politicians onboard. We have to have these events, such as Smartathons, to make some noise and show people what can be done.

JAN: If you go directly to the [city administration] they may be reluctant to embrace this new technology, but if you go to the citizens and show them the potential, if people like it then politicians will take notice and see that it works better than other instruments used in the past. Then they accept it.

JENS: In terms of success indicators for this project, it is not a success if we just create another app. We need to create awareness and outline how this process could look in the future – how to set up rules and the process of engaging people using this technology. This could be the outcome, as well as some usable components and a framework that people can make use of.

JAN: From the technology perspective, everything is here. The rest is just advertising – making citizens aware that there is something new that can improve the way they participate in the city. There is still the problem that we need to get the people who don’t usually participate in public decisions to join in. It is here that the app can have a big impact. It’s a playful way of getting in touch with your administration – it’s a way that you can have some fun!

To view part 2 of this interview, click here.