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 second part of an interview that took place in April 2018. To view part 1, click here.

Smarticipate works on open data. Where do most European cities stand in terms of gathering data that is useable technically?

JENS: Open data is a byproduct of gathering other data (often driven by legislation). It’s a question of what you can make out of that data. If there’s a demand for a specific data set, where people are really saying that sensors should be put up so data can be generated on a daily basis or whatever, that’s one thing, but it’s hard to really know what’s useful to gather and what’s not useful to gather in a complex city. A platform like smarticipate can make it clearer what is desirable or not.

JAN: Since we are in the EU, the cities are quite advanced in terms of technology, so there is a lot of data available. But citizen demand may encourage the city authorities to update data sets more frequently, or to open up new data sets, as citizens using smarticipate can see that to take certain decisions more data is required. And cities, which may not have planned on opening up the data, may decide that they could open up anonymised portions, and in that way increase the amount of open data available.

JENS: Our work has also shown us that about 50 percent of the data cities have is in a non-digital format – in a binder in a basement somewhere – so to have a complete picture you need to digitise everything. But no one wants to do it because it’s a lot of effort if you’re not sure that it will be of use. So the demand will help to make this non-digitised data useable for the future.

The security aspects of open data are always to be considered. If you publish information on the location of gas pipes in the city streets, for example, this can lead to threats, in the sense that people looking to carry out terror attacks now know where the vulnerabilities are. You can abuse any kind of data if that’s your intention, and that is always to be kept in mind, particularly when it’s government data. There needs to be proper legislation in place to handle this.

Hamburg’s open data law obliges the municipality to publish all of its data. This covers people working for the government, because if they weren’t obliged and one department decided to publish data, and this data was somehow misused, then that department would receive the blame. This can then have a chilling effect in terms of departments deciding to release data going forward.

Do you find that cities are skeptical about collecting more data for security reasons?

JAN: In terms of expanding the amount of data sets collected, this can lead to vulnerabilities: the more devices you have [connected to the Internet of Things] the higher the risk of being hacked. In practice though, oftentimes ‘open data’ just means providing access to data that the city administration stores anyway.

If you think about open data in terms of more sensors and so on I can understand why people may be skeptical, but this is a different viewpoint – to me opening up in terms of data is about providing access to the data that administrations are collecting anyway (census data and so on).

Introducing more technology to collect more data can increases risks, though – the more technology you have, the greater the risk of them being hacked, of course.

JENS: Most ICT devices have a poor security concept behind them. When cities and national governments talk about opening up data the media takes an interest, and you start to hear a lot of (sometimes scandalous) stories about hacking. The truth is that [hacking] has been happening for a long time – when the data was held behind closed doors, we just didn’t know about it! The problems were already there.

Looking back at the smarticipate development, would you change anything?

JENS: Coming to a bunch of people that have expectations and then saying “what do you want?” doesn’t actually help with technical development. Bringing something to them and saying “is this useful for you or what would you change?” is a better approach I think. Doing it that way would save a lot of time. I tried to have a one day workshop in Rome with 30 people in the room and it was difficult to come to a conclusion.

If you come with a blank sheet of paper it’s difficult to start. It’s better to have people work on something and then change it.

JAN: Yes, otherwise you create a long wish-list of 150 items, when it’s only possible to tackle 30.

We had such a small team of developers, and not all of them in the same place or company… We didn’t have the resources of large companies like Microsoft. If someone dropped out, we couldn’t just replace them immediately.

JENS: It’s an innovation process. There wasn’t much existing, besides the basics – we had to design the user interface which was a lot of work. It wasn’t that easy to bridge the gap between the cities and the technical approach. It’s a lot for one project.

We’ve tried to keep in mind the sustainability of the project. In other cases, because technology develops so fast, by the end of the project that technology is already outdated, and the product isn’t compatible with data libraries and so on. Ensuring the product is sustainable is a big challenge.

JENS: In my view, it’s about establishing a process, not writing a piece of code that will be outdated in 10 years. If we can set up rules and processes for how to start such a project and how to engage with people, I think it would be a good outcome.

The biggest challenge is the way people in administrations are thinking – introducing this software means changing processes that they’ve carried out for a long time. So commericalising smarticipate must be done in a very controlled manner, otherwise the cities won’t implement it, as they’ll be afraid of a chaotic outcome.

We need to focus on our rules and the feedback that smarticipate is giving, as that is its added value. Most cities already have an app with a map and an overview of the city – we need to focus on the difference we can make with smarticipate: we can create rules that provide feedback based on open data, making the system more transparent.

To view part 1 of this interview, click here.