What to measure in a smart city?

Earlier this month I participated in a workshop where the question “what to measure?” was asked in the context of smart cities. I found it an interesting question to consider because it seems certain that connected sensors will soon be ubiquitously embedded in our environment (urban spaces/buildings/appliances/cars/drones/satellite) and on our body (smartphones/ watches/clothes). Nevertheless, it is far from clear how to make use of data that they collect.

To answer the question, you may start off by thinking about how data from the sensors may be used. For example, information on the flow of cars is very useful to navigations systems, enabling them to find the quickest route around town. Another example is physiological data that citizens can use to stay healthy and healthcare professionals may use for tailoring treatment.

However, rather than coming up with a long list of possible things to measure and the potential utility of such data, I will instead outline a number of related questions which I believe are useful angles to investigate in order to give an educated answer to the main question. As with other open-ended exploratory questions, I would start by anchoring the question in the current context by investigating…

“Which services are city ‘x’ offering its citizens and businesses today, and how are they collecting and processing data for those services?”

Though this investigation may not give rise to any novel ideas and the facts may already be known to the participants, it will form a common reference point for those working together to answer the main question.

I assume that the main question is mainly motivated by the notion that there are many new possibilities for measuring data in a city and a potential for the local government to use such data to improve services. The next exercises would therefore naturally be to look into…

”Which types of data capture is on the horizon? How can data be manipulated in advanced ways to create insights? How those insights may add new value to the actors?”

There may be extensive reports available online on either of these subjects, so the challenge is first and foremost to bring this information together so it is possible to evaluate the potential value of it. For this purpose, we may use scenarios to describe different elements come together in the creation of a service during a particular user or business activity.

Another approach would be to investigate the individual domains of service that the city offers to the public such as transport, garbage collection, health, tax collection etc. and envision…

”How will public services change in the near future and which types of data will be needed to facilitate those changes.“

At this stage you may already have gained a good number of insights concerning ‘what to measure’, but if the ambition is to look even deeper into the question, it may be fruitful to add investigations of news ways of living and working (e.g. sharing and knowledge economy), as well as exploring future visions of societal challenges and what data could potentially be used for meeting those needs. For example, for decades, Denmark has been collecting health data from its citizens, which today has become a treasure trove of information for understanding long-term health effects. Similarly, arctic weather observations by the earliest pioneers are today very valuable to understand climate change.

Another interesting viewpoint is to consider collecting data without a predefined purpose, subsequently giving free online access to the data so that others may find ways of deriving value from it. Entrepreneurs would thereby be able to create new services – and value – for the actors in the local area.

In total, I believe the above-mentioned perspectives would provide a fairly good overview of how a smart city can provide value to its citizens and businesses based on data collection, – and thereby give an answer to the question of “what to measure?”, but as a final remark, I would like to emphasize the importance of taking into account privacy and security issues for those ideas considered for final selection.