Data ecosystem in smart cities
Implications for technology based interventions during the pandemic: Lessons from India
National data policies need to promote standardisation and encourage local innovation (Image: Wikimedia Commons; CC BY-SA 3.0 DE)

Disease control is a long-standing consideration in building smart city architecture, while humanitarian actions are increasingly digitised. However, there are competing city visions being employed in the COVID-19 response. This is symptomatic of a broader range of tech-based responses in other humanitarian contexts.

These visions range from aspirations for technology driven, centralised and surveillance oriented urban regimes, to ‘frugal innovations’ by firms, consumers and city governments. Data ecosystems are not immune from gendered- and socio-political discrimination, and technology-based interventions can worsen existing inequalities, particularly in emergencies.

Technology driven public health interventions thus raise concerns about 1) what types of technologies are appropriate, 2) whether they produce inclusive outcomes for economically and socially disadvantaged urban residents and 3) the balance between surveillance and control on one hand, and privacy and citizen autonomy on the other.

A recent policy brief by Gupte et al distils best data practice recommendations through consideration of key issues involved in the use of technology for surveillance, fact-checking and coordinated control during crisis or emergency response in resource constrained urban contexts.

It draws lessons from how data-enabled technologies were used in urban COVID-19 response, as well as how standard implementation procedures were affected by the pandemic.

The study findings and recommendations derive from a multi-year research collaboration with municipal authorities across four Indian cities (Kochi, Chennai, Bhopal, and Surat) engaged in the Government of India’s Smart Cities Mission.

This included dialogue with the relevant city- and national- authorities in the months prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and once the national decision to lockdown all public interaction was taken, as well as critical reflection with key city stakeholders six months after control interventions, were first implemented.


Data decentralisation and trust in local institutions

COVID-19 response has relied heavily on digital technologies and real-time data. Experiences from India show it is important to go local. Equally it is important to maintain analogue data systems where the goal is to include marginalised communities without access to digital devices, connectivity and digital literacy or agency in design and management of the urban infrastructure.

Authorities should recognise that the local data ecosystem involves multiple actors with a range of responsibilities and motivations, and institutions, technologies, equipment and processes with varying degrees of direct representation of at-risk groups. Coherence and legibility across actors, institutions and technologies are therefore of central importance.

Data decentralisation and trust in local institutions

Decentralised, privacy-enhancing and rights preserving public health infrastructures, sustained and resourced over time, are critical for responding to local health needs in emergencies. Local authorities should consider data architectures that support public health decentralisation, privacy and security such that data is generated locally by those who perceive a utility from its accuracy and consistency, and made accessible to those who perceive a utility from responding effectively to local needs.

Public health decentralisation should be supported through open-source, locally operable, transparent, and believable data paired with simple, transparent and reproducible tools to track progress.

“Local data” is a complex network of data, actors and responsibilities

The effective use of technologies for coordination, dissemination, and fact-checking across state- and citizen-led activities in COVID-19 response was shaped by data from formal and informal sources.

Consider national data policies that promote standardisation and encourage local innovation. Where innovations outlast crisis response, it is of utmost importance to ensure compromises made in the ‘heat-of-the-moment’ are not hard-wired into a long-term status quo.

Building system resilience by strengthening local data initiatives

Experiences in Chennai show that the volume and speed with which data was being generated during the initial days of the national lockdown on specific vulnerable groups in the city (e.g. migrant labourers) could not be dealt with by city data officials alone, and required partnership with trusted NGOs and other volunteer support groups. Once the data built up, the city developed a dedicated application to monitor people under quarantine. With the help of volunteers, city officials tried to ensure a supply of essentials at the doorsteps of vulnerable people, and those under quarantine.

Promote innovation practices that are based on principles of openness, diffusion and shared vision. This need not rely solely on ‘frontier technologies’ but also involve ‘frugal’ and mundane innovations. It is vital that in assessing the overall effectiveness and longevity of local smart city interventions, the merits and demerits of everyday technologies in achieving coordination across and within government smart city functionaries are weighed up.

Technology must be accessible and appropriate for purpose, and it must enable, as well as be enabled by, effective and inclusive institutions. Where frugal innovation is deployed, it should be done alongside effective public health institutions and grounded within everyday data sharing realities.

Strengthening blended data systems

Blended data environments (where official, citizen-led, informal, digitised and analogue data coexist) produce numerous opportunities for strengthening local data capacities, evidence-based policymaking and local governance as a whole, enhancing responsiveness to community needs, improving reporting, and building co-ownership of policies, strategies, plans and projects.

Consider capacity strengthening activities, including national urban learning platforms, that cut across levels of government and across actors with varying motivations to engage with data environments. There is less training overhead and less resistance to change when making use of the technologies people are already familiar with and comfortable using.

National data policies are required to enable local data actions

Consider supporting national data-governance standards with local data action plans, and multi-stakeholder data alliances with explicit representation from community groups and civil society.

City data officers and their teams should be considered essential for coordination between municipal departments, a core component of emergency public health response, and feed into broader humanitarian and disaster preparedness. They should be trained to anticipate that all data systems will grow incrementally. They can act as data champions to embed community and multiple decision-makers into data reliant decision support systems.

This brief is intended for urban local authorities mandated with the pandemic response and for community groups representing those who bear the triple burden of disease, income vulnerability, and of marginalisation in official data architectures. It will also be of interest to local and national authorities and community groups utilising smart urban technologies in other humanitarian contexts, as well as other public health stakeholders engaging in contexts where data infrastructures are thwarted by information and communication gaps.

The full report can be accessed here

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