Smart cities with privacy in mind? Norway is making a start

For smart city initiatives to take root, they need public buy-in, and that means the data privacy challenge needs to be tackled.
12 February 2020

Oslo is one of Europe’s leading green capitals and innovation hubs. Source: Unsplash

In today’s landscape, the success of enterprises, both public and private, now rests on how they utilize data. 

Organizations of various sizes collect a wealth of data in major cities but principally for their own use, while citizens themselves seemingly derive little benefit from that harvest.

As we progress towards a future of smart cities — powered around the clock by masses of real-time data — researchers from the University of Oslo (UiO) know that buy-in from society will be crucial for the success of these initiatives, and are trying to turn the tables in the favor of public interest. 

Academics Geir Horn and Frank Eliassen plan to leverage the streams of data collected by corporations to develop a set of new services that will greatly improve the quality of life in densely populated cities. 

The best part is each individual will have control over how data is shared, with whom, and the ways it will be used. 

“Our project is based on a hypothesis that safe and secure data sharing creates many new opportunities, not only for businesses and public enterprises but also for individual citizens. The principal idea is to use the data available in the city of the future in a way that is in the best interest of both the city and its citizens,” said Eliassen.

The project, CityZen, is a major collaborative initiative between areas in Oslo and Stavanger, acting as ‘test arenas’ for safe, secure data sharing with well-informed and empowered citizens. 

For example, utility companies can leverage citizens’ data to enhance resource consumption and reduce costs. Based on a home’s usage, electric companies can harness insights to formulate plans for sustainable energy and predictive maintenance, directly impacting the lives of citizens. 

Urban mobility will be significantly affected as well; data analytics can help monitor and disperse traffic congestion in cities.

Insights on public transport operations will come in handy when notifying users of closure or maintenance work, navigating users to alternative routes and inevitably diverting traffic to prevent further congestion in the city. In the long run, crucial data on road management will help with urban planning and transport development, particularly as autonomous vehicles become a reality. 

The high degree of digitization in Norway means groundwork has already been laid out and significant opportunities are waiting to be discovered. 

In Horn’s words, “We buy our tickets on mobile phones, use electronic payment services, have apps that give us discounts from grocery stores, etc. All of this enables us to take a leading role internationally and the solutions we develop can give Norwegian companies a competitive edge in the international market.” 

In addition to that, international partners, including the World Bank and local corporations such as Brønnøysund Register Centre, are on board with the development of CityZen. 

Building a smart city of tomorrow with privacy in check is not without some boulders to move.

Eliassen predicts that disseminating data across stakeholders may risk violating privacy laws and regulations. Another concern is the variation in data format and models will inhibit its ability to share data across platforms. However, by developing technological solutions that overcome these issues while safeguarding data privacy, a mound of opportunities in enhancing municipal services awaits. 

With up to 70 percent of the global population to reside in cities by 2050 and the industry of smart cities to amount to US$400 billion this year, designing smart cities with data protection in mind should not be an option or add on. 

Experts remarked that a growing awareness of data privacy and security globally asserts the need for future cities to be mindful of the way data is used. 

Hence, projects such as CityZen are laying the blueprints of a much-needed data conscious city that meets the needs of a rapidly digitizing society.