Biometric Data And Smart Cities

Using information to track individuals’ behaviour and interactions in cities could be used to redesign systems from healthcare to transport.

Biometric data apps are helping cyclists and runners keep tabs on their physical exertions as well as track their routes and speed. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.
Biometric data apps are helping cyclists and runners keep tabs on their physical exertions as well as track their routes and speed. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

The rumour mill around Apple’s California headquarters is spinning mighty fast. Word has it that the Silicon Valley tech giant is cooking up a new, market-smashing product to rival the iPod, iPhone and iPad. The smart money is on something to do with biometrics, very possibly an iWatch.

Simon Giles is hoping the word in the blogosphere might prove correct. Global lead for the Intelligent Cities Initiative at management consultancy firm Accenture, he believes biometric data (or “quantified self data” as the wonks call it) is set to become “absolute gold dust” for smart city planners.

“These data sets will increase understanding of individuals, in terms of how they relate to a city and how they perform themselves as kind of human machines, but also how they react with the physical environment within which they are in in cities”, states Giles, a former adviser to the World Economic Forum on smart grids and green growth.

Biometric information is generated via sensors in electronic devices, such as GPS, accelerometers, light sensors and so forth. Fit these high tech gadgets with a low energy communication medium such as Bluetooth and the data created can then be read and potentially shared by smartphones and other internet-enabled devices.

Data gold dust

To date, the early running is happening in healthcare. Think portable sleep monitors, Wifi-enabled scales that measure your body fat percentage as well as your weight, heart rate monitors, and so on. Personal fitness is another hot sector for biometrics. Apps such as Endomondo and RunKeeper are helping cyclists and runners keep tabs on their physical exertions as well as track their routes and speed.

From a sustainable city and urban planning perspective, Giles admits that the field of biometrics is “still quite nascent”. The potential is enormous, however. He cites the use of GPS data to determine individuals’ real-life travel patterns. Understand that en masse and you can optimise the linkages between forms of public transport or the design of new roads or cycle paths.

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Giles is also excited about the potential in the sphere of public health. Biometric data can be used, for example, to help explain why there are spikes of obesity or norovirus in one neighbourhood of a city or another. Biometric devices also present the possibility of patients recovering from operations or illnesses at home, rather than in hospital. Rather than return for regular check-ups, doctors could monitor their progress virtually and call them in only when exceptions show up in their data streams.

It all comes down to systems, he says. Health, transport, energy, you name it, they are all essentially systems, each of which generates unique data. A city is merely “a collection of systems”. In the case of sustainable city design, he notes, “what will change the game is when you understand the interrelationship between these [different] systems.”

Making the market

A number of significant barriers stand in the way, however. The most obvious is data privacy. Apps such as Endomondo allow you to share your performance on a run or cycle ride, say, with your social network. Would you be as happy if your web-enabled scales posted your Body Mass Index on Facebook though? Or if a health insurance firm took that data to set its premiums? The presumption is an almost certain ‘no’.

A second big problem is scale. At present, services are typically delivered by individual data collection providers and via stand-alone Apps. What’s more, they tend to focus just on the individual. A rapid expansion of the commercial market and scope of data (i.e. collective, not individual) needs to happen if biometric and other ‘smart’ data are going to take off and deliver serious social value, Giles argues.

He thinks he has an answer to both problems. It lies in how this data-led marketplace of the future is governed. Giles is calling for a trust-like entity, such as a mutual or cooperative, which will ensure that private data is used in citizens’ interests. Furthermore, it would be run on a non-profit basis, with the bulk of any revenues given back to the citizen data-providers and the remainder reinvested in the development of future services.

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Who do we trust to use our data, Giles asks? Vodafone? Google? The government? “If there is a profit motive or a concern over surveillance then there is a question of trust over the information that is being used”, he states. Far better, a neutral, dispassionate intermediary that “will only put your interests at heart or those of your peer group.”

A pending question still remains: whose responsibility is it to set up such an intermediary? Giles puts the ball in the court of city governments. Public authorities built the roads, ports and other infrastructure to kick start the industrial economy. Likewise, they should play an active role in setting in place the framework for tomorrow’s “urban information economy”, he argues.

Businesses have a role to play too. Giles envisions as “multiple agent role” for the private sector. It may be that a company would act as the market’s concessionaire or clearing house, for example, administering data-related trades and investments. As with any commercial value chain, the urban information economy also promises to create numerous business opportunities for the fleet-of-foot: think App developers, analytics firms, pure data providers, biometric device designers, and so forth.

Giles’ hope is that a “pioneering city” will take the first step, very possibly in conjunction with a group of enlightened companies. “That generates a reference architecture for what this could look like”, he says. Ideally, that architecture would be open, thereby allowing others to use it. Hear that Apple?


This article originally appeared in The Guardian.

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