Who owns the smart city’s data?

smart city data

City authorities need to enhance public-private cooperation to build sustainable urban transformation agendas. Private sector introduces innovation, talent and provide capital to the urban development process, while playing a leading role in design, implementation, operations and maintenance, and sustainability of the urban development and services initiatives. But it seems that everywhere private companies are exploiting data which should be in the public domain.

There is an interesting debate going on regarding the monetisation of smart city’s data. Data ownership is clear if the whole implementation is being initiated and paid by the Government. However, as we moved forward with new business models, smart city implementations can be deployed by private companies.

With regards to this debate,Dr. Mazlan Abbas , IOT Evangelist, Keynote Speaker, and IOT Thought Leader raised the following questions:

  • How do we share the data?
  • If infrastructure is being paid by the Councils or the States, it belongs to the citizens and should be given free or made open
  • How do we monetise the smart cities data when its should be made “free”
  • Some countries stated that even a 1% investment from the Public in any PPP (Public Private Partnership) project has to be considered as Public data
  • What’s the best business model in smart cities when the government are not willing or can’t afford to implement such solutions?

Serious issues which has to be tackled, before it is too late and cities stand by and watch their data being monetized by private companies, whose aim is to make a profit, instead of stimulating benefit for citizens.

Should data be nationalised?

In a great article on Information Age, Ben Rossi asks himself if it isn’t time to nationalise data. Why? In his opinion, National, local and city governments have surrendered the initiative on smart city projects by letting commercial companies hoover up . And isn’t he right? Isn’t it so that everywhere around the world private companies are utilising open data provided by the city and its citizens and, sometimes, Google?

Google, Apple, Facebook, Fitbit, Snap, Amazon and Uber – they all probably know more about you than the authorities do. And let’s be clear: they are not aiding the government and its citizens to have a healthier, more sustainable existence. Ben Rossi

Example from Rossi:”Uber doesn’t just know the fastest route to get around the world’s biggest cities; every customer is milked for information that it marries with traffic data, GPS data, satellite mapping and even crime data to give it an edge that traditional public transport simply can’t match. Which would be fine if Uber was actively working with the cities it operates in for the benefit of all, but it is an aggressively profit-driven company. It makes perfect business sense, but what do citizens get out of it?”

Another one of many examples: The Chinese government is helping cities by including big companies in all their government programmes, like the creation of smart cities. Alibaba and 13 other companies are now working with the local government of Hangzhou on public private partnerships (PPP) to create smart service delivery systems for the city. Great initiative with many benefits for its citizens, which makes their lives easier. There is one downside: Hangzhou’s smart initiatives made life easier for its residents, but also more costly. The initiatives created an overload of jobs, resulting in large scale immigration of high paid young workers. This again resulted in the rise of housing costs etcetera.

The difference between open data and public data

But open data is not the same as public data. Open data can be freely used, re-used and redistributed by anyone – subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and sharealike. According to Rossi, “open data initiative should be driven centrally by the city itself. There is also the argument that an open data policy just adds complications. Who is using the data? How? How secure is it? What is it used for? Who benefits most? And, as a resident, what’s in it for you? Is it all about reducing commuting time, improving my health and saving taxes – or is it about generating profits for the private sector?” See here examples of 40 open data projects around the world, I wonder who owns the data here?


A lot of questions which does not have one simple answer. But Rossi has a point in his attempt to come to an answer. ” If necessary, we could force (through tough legislation) the private sector to work with local authorities to develop services that benefit people. Or if this still does not work then perhaps it is time to nationalise all the data accrued by the private sector in the past decade.”

Let us continue to have this debate, before it is too late.

*) Featured image: OakleyOriginals (cc)


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