What does that grey device do?

Vivien Butot is a PhD candidate and Freek de Haan is a post-doctoral researcher at CESAM. Together they are conducting research on Rotterdam’s smart city policies, and related citizens’ privacy concerns. In this blog post they share their experience of organising a virtual data walk during the Science Meets City event in Rotterdam.

The subjects of smart cities, urban data and privacy can be difficult to grasp. While civil servants, corporations and academics involved with smart cities develop their own views of what smart cities mean tailored to their interests, for the broader public the concept is often unknown.

Furthermore, while we can clearly see steps taken towards their realization, smart cities are still a multifaceted vision of urban development. Privacy, on the other hand, is a much older concept, and discussions about it re-emerge whenever societies are confronted with new data generating technologies and practices, both among professionals and citizens. To make the topics of smart cities, urban data and privacy a little bit more concrete, we have organised data walks through the city of Rotterdam.

Invented by Alison Powell , the framework of this method is clear and simple: set out a route through the city and keep an eye out for data-generating devices in urban spaces. When devices are spotted, ask questions such as: what do these devices do? What could be their purpose? What kinds of data do they collect? Who owns them? Like others before us we have used this method in Dutch cities with the primary aim of making participants aware of the multitude of data-generating technologies in urban spaces. It is only through such an awareness that a discussion about privacy management in smart cities can take place. 

Our experience with data walks started when we took part in one organised by our colleagues from BOLD cities, and then by organising one ourselves during a summer course for HOVO . When my colleague at CESAM Freek de Haan and I were invited to participate in the Science Meets City event in Rotterdam, we organised a virtual version of a data walk through Rotterdam. We presented a virtual version rather than an actual “physical” walk because of the practical limitations of giving a workshop in a room, so we presented pictures of devices to steer the gaze of participants (see pictures in the slideshow below). This means that we gave away important clues, because it is possible (and from other experiences also proven to be likely) that participants otherwise would not have seen some of the devices, nor would evaluate it as having the capacity to generate data. Despite this difference between a “physical” and a “virtual” data walk, our experience at the Science Meets City event was very positive. Participants asked very salient questions. For example, one participant wondered whether telecom companies should be taxed for hanging their WiFi tracking devices on lamp posts. In some cases participants had a very good idea of which organisations are involved in a single data point, such as the check-in portals in public transportation stations. Altogether, our “virtual data walk” elicited good discussions over benefits of urban data and the controversies over the interests involved in equipping urban space with digital observation tools.

Although it is inevitable that both participants and researchers doing data walks at some point are confronted with the limits of their knowledge about specific details involved in urban data practices, the method proves to be potent for inviting curiosity and starting up debates about the most salient questions involved when thinking about privacy management in smart cities, such as: what do the devices do? What could be their purpose? What kinds of data do they collect? Who owns them?

After our workshop at the Nhow hotel we did a mini-interview with Open Rotterdam. Have a look at the video.


If you enjoyed reading this, try another one in our series of blog posts about aspects of safety from the Centre of Excellence in Public Safety Management (CESAM) at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM). It is intended to act as an introduction to the Centre’s work; to promote and foster the professional development and management of public safety organisations, and to give CESAM members a platform to share their observations and experiences as academics and citizens.

CESAM blog