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Liberalisation of data will be behind smarter cities of 2020, says expert

FOCUS: Imagine a world where the smart meters used to record and manage energy consumption in homes are used by health care providers to monitor outpatients, or where information recorded by traffic cameras or road sensors is used to help people plan their journeys more efficiently.03 Dec 2015

These are practical examples of the evolution of 'smart cities' which will accelerate over the next five years. By 2020, major signs of their benefits will be felt by people, businesses and local authorities.

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Smart cities will use advanced technology and digital services to change the way we live.

They will reflect a number of trends we are already familiar with, from increasing urbanisation and competition to attract business and investment, to the proliferation of information and its potential to improve services using ever more sophisticated algorithms, systems and software.

This combination of factors is changing the way in which we use our cities. Communities are demanding more real time information and solutions in the areas where we live, work and play. This demand will be met through technical innovation, fuelled by the rapid growth of the internet of things, cloud computing and big data.

Smart cities are already evolving. In Malmo, Sweden buses can trigger changes in traffic lights, speeding up journeys by public transport. Smarter transport might also involve regulating and managing traffic and monitoring its impact on pollution.

Some cities already have electronic road pricing (ERP) for congestion charging. However, there are other potential uses of the data these systems gather. You could use the data to deliver personalised services, such as warnings and advice on travel disruption and routes into city centres. It might also be linked to other details, such as notifications of the whereabouts of charging points for electric cars and available parking spaces, and tie into the growing concept of the sharing economy which promotes the more efficient use of assets, like cars, homes and equipment.

Smart metering is another potential enabler of smart city initiatives, but there remains a lack of uptake. Their classic use is in recording and enabling the management of energy consumption. This could be combined with the information at the disposal of health providers to enable monitoring of recently discharged patients through the meters' recording of their activity.

Smarter cities will be developed in different ways and take a variety of forms around the world, reflecting the priorities of local policymakers. Malmo, Barcelona and Copenhagen are already at the forefront of efforts to retro-fit cities to make them smarter. In the Middle East, some smarter cities are being built from the ground up.

Regardless of the model being adopted, the success of smarter cities will depend on the liberalisation of data that has been traditionally locked into individual bits of infrastructure. Freeing up that data, and using software to manipulate the information for wider use, will deliver benefits like smarter energy consumption, transportation, city planning and health care in cities.

Interoperability will be important. For data to be liberalised from existing silos, different systems need to work together. The internet of things will bring a wave of new applications which will be able to plug into existing systems but the biggest potential will be realised with the development of technical standards to ensure the systems can 'talk' to one another and data can flow.

At the moment there is a lot of new technology and a lot of innovation, but little standardisation. All stakeholders need to be involved in standards creation, from governments and local authorities to tech companies, platforms, transport infrastructure operators, health care providers and utility companies.

Another major issue to overcome is how to fit plans for innovative new uses of data with existing data privacy regulations.

Governments have an important role to play in ensuring people have control over how their data within public datasets are used and in reassuring them about their ownership of data. Only with trust and education on the benefits of sharing data will innovations based on data licensing take off and support smart cities projects.

Once you have a smart city network that is properly implemented it becomes quite easy to check all kinds of data. The secret is analysing and processing the data to make accurate and automated decisions. Only when that happen will the sense that smart city initiatives are gimmicks be dispelled and the real benefits of energy saving, waste management, intelligent traffic and movement systems, security and access to knowledge be demonstrated.

Diane Mullenex is a technology law expert at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com