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Eindhoven wants to become a smart society. But how does that work? What’s going on in a society like that? Are there any good examples to learn from? DataStudio Eindhoven explores the transition a city has to go through to actually become such a smart society. Each week, we present a new contribution on E52. This week: Readability of data, part 1. Read all the articles in this series here.

Part of the Dutch Design Week and World Design Event was the exhibition Embassy of Data, presented by DATA Studio Eindhoven. The programme included the international conference A City As Smart As Smart As Its Citizens on the findings of the DATA studio’s programs over the past three years. One of the goals: to outline realistic steps to promote the development of the ‘smart society’ in the city.

Wethouder Mary-Ann Schreurs, through Linda Vlassenrood, project manager of the DATA studio:

“First, we talked about the development of the smart city, then we talked about the development of the smart society. Perhaps now is the time to drop the word ‘smart’ alltogether. Let us get back to the question of what society’s development needs and then look at the role that data can play.”

The data page of municipalities
Many municipalities in the Netherlands, including Eindhoven, are in a difficult situation with their data policy. On the one hand, they strive to publish as many open and divisible datasets as possible. On the other hand, however, they recognize the importance of protecting citizens’ privacy – a reason why many datasets should not be published at all.

Many cities like to make the promise that they are on their way to becoming a smart city. However, the impact of cities on the urban data climate is in fact small. Private companies (starting with the well-known list of Facebook, Google/Alphabet, Uber and AirBnB) have access to much more data and use it for their own agendas and profit goals, which largely avoid democratic influence.

Democratic debate
When it comes to a smart society, it is first and foremost important to make the data sphere the subject of democratic debate and decision-making. In the data sphere, municipalities have less to say than companies, and individual citizens are completely at the end of the line. This asymmetry in influence should be better balanced. In other words, citizens should be data-empowered. This was the first ‘block’ in the conference, about which this article and this article were published earlier on E52. The second block of the conference focused on how to promote the readability of data in public space – one of the prerequisites for citizens’ data emancipation. Keynote speaker in the second block was Usman Haque, lead designer of Umbrellium, an award-winning design office from England, specialized in urban design and data platforms.

The blocks in the conference were followed by discussions aimed at making concrete perspectives for the participants. For this purpose, the audience was divided into groups. The discussions were led by the members of a panel. In addition to Usman Haque, it consisted of Saskia de Beer, developer of ZO! city urban development platform, Merel Noorman, smart city researcher at Maastricht University, and Chris Sigaloff, former director of Kennisland and member of the think tank of the DATA studio.

The legibility of data
In order to be able to deal with the design question about the legibility – or: readability – of data properly, some misconceptions (so Haque) about the so-called ‘smart citizen’ must first be eliminated.

After all, society (Haque also consciously left the adjective ‘smart’ way away) does not so much need smart citizens as it needs concerned citizens – citizens who participate in informed and committed decision-making on small and large questions in urban society. Data can play a crucial role in this, but only if data is ‘put in place properly’ (to quote Maya Indira Ganesh) and is approached in the right way.

How it should not be done
We now live in the ‘society of the data-spectacle‘ (a variation on The Society of the Spectacle, the title of the famous book of French situationist Guy Debord from 1967), in which data itself is given far too much influence, and in which there is a tendency to see the solution of all possible problems in the collection of data.

To illustrate this, Haque referred to the citizen science practice of collecting data on air quality with sensors – an example of a misleading data practice. Why? Firstly, such data collection rarely leads to new knowledge. Air quality meters near busy intersections will show worse air than air quality meters in the middle of a large city park. It is also known that air quality correlates strongly with noise levels. Both the hustle and bustle of an intersection and the noise level can be observed directly by people without additional sensors. Not infrequently, data collection is even used by governments or other stakeholders as a kind of deferral tactic. If a problem is easy to understand but sensitive, data must first be collected.

In the event that new knowledge is generated through data collection, this often makes little difference for decision-making. If for example, measurements show that air quality in certain streets is much worse than expected, this becomes a direct subject of a political game. For example, homeowners in that street might want the data not to be published in order not to depress the price of their property. Activists who restrict traffic congestion have a very different interest. In short: decisions are not made on the basis of data, but on the basis of a political process, even if the data reveals new realities.

It is also true that even without additional data, it is already clear what kind of decision can be taken, for example in the situation around a busy traffic junction in the city. Measures may be taken to limit traffic volume – or not. The data on air quality does not add anything to the nature of that possible decision. In fact, citizens hardly acquire any capacity to make meaningful decisions by collecting that air quality data.

Next week: How it should be done