The University of Michigan’s Smart Cities Club hosted a small group discussion at the Trotter Multicultural Center on Friday including a panel of young professionals in the field. “Smart cities” are cities that incorporate new technological innovations to increase the efficiency of their systems.  

Business graduate student Katerina Athanasiou, Smart Cities Club co-president, outlined the club’s intentions, which aim to utilize diverse knowledge from the University’s student body to create better solutions to problems in urban life.

“The goal is to really create this interdisciplinary community of students all across campus that are curious about these problems … What we’re really trying to do is get folks into one room to have conversations among students and to really try to capitalize on the human capital we have on campus,” Athanasiou said.

Florian Schaub, assistant professor in the School of Information, noted some problematic aspects of smart cities. One of these problems is surveillance, Schaub said. 

“Smart cities carry a number of potential privacy risks, right? So surveillance is an important one. If we install cameras, even to mentally monitor traffic flow, you can run facial recognition on the data,” Schaub said. “The same way you can use license plate recognition for example, that can be used to create relatively detailed records of people’s lives.”

Panelist Erica Raleigh, director of Data Driven Detroit, discussed further privacy concerns, specifically mentioning Project Green Light. This is a program in which the city and corporate partners are installing cameras at business locations. To Raleigh, an unsettling aspect of this program is a video stream monitored by the Detroit Police Department Headquarters. She expressed concern for how this video stream could be abused. 

“There is a company engaged on contract with the city of Detroit that could potentially have the capacity to do live facial recognition surveillance on that video footage,” Raleigh said. “This is something that not a lot of people are aware of but if you are aware of it, it tends to be like, ‘Oh, yeah, I feel safer because cameras are here and that could protect me from crime.’ But it’s terrifying to me.”

Schaub discussed how issues of privacy came up in a project from Sidewalk Labs that generated a plan to make a smart city on the Toronto waterfront. The plan was scaled back significantly in October 2019 due to protesters claiming the city’s technological surveillance would violate their privacy. 

“Community members felt really strongly that whatever technologies introduced need to have a direct benefit to the community and clearly articulated benefit,” Schaub said. “If (Sidewalk Labs) just says, ‘oh, we’re gonna put sensors in your street lens and we put cameras everywhere here,’ people don’t feel comfortable with this. They want to know, ‘how is this benefiting me?”

Panelists also discussed the idea of digital deserts. A digital desert is a region in a community which lacks internet connection and internet capable devices. Schaub said this can affect data collection by excluding people with lower socioeconomic statuses.

“There’s been a couple of really interesting smart city initiatives where the goal was ‘can we use mobile apps to figure out where our potholes on the streets?” Schaub said. “But there’s a problem that not everyone has smartphones that can actually collect the data and that the streets and the more wealthy neighborhoods were nicely fixed but the streets for low income neighborhoods didn’t get those benefits. The data says there was not a lot of potholes in these particular areas, which is, of course not the case. It’s just people didn’t have smartphones.”

The panel continued to discuss practical implications of data collection taking place in Detroit. Joshua Edmonds, director of digital inclusion for the City of Detroit, said Detroit is the most unconnected city in the United States, with 39.9 percent of homes lacking internet access. 

“If the average cost for internet subscription is roughly $55-$60, what we’re essentially telling people is that if you can’t afford that, then you can’t play in our society,” Edmonds said. “It doesn’t make any sense. Why would a country essentially look at their future and handicap the future?”

Devika Agarwal, Rackham and Business graduate student, said she appreciated that the speakers addressed how minority communities are often left out of digital advances. 

“I think the professor did a really good job of acknowledging the issues with data collection, and I think he actually spoke to design cities in a way that was inclusive,” Agarwal said. “It’s interesting to think about as a school community, who are the people who are coming to these events that are going to advocate for keeping minorities at the top of mind. If most of my classmates are going to go on to design cities, even at the most basic level, are the voices of underrepresented minorities going to be the top client?”

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