Are smart cities watching our every move?

10 Jul 2018

The audience at the recent 4IRC debate on smart cities. Image: TechWatch

Is your city spying on you? TechWatch editor Emily McDaid reports from the latest 4IRC debate, which focused on smart cities and surveillance.

Below, we’ve recapped the smart cities event held on 12 June at Belfast’s Oh Yeah Music Centre.

Host Eimear Maguire said: “Is your city helping you be an active citizen, or is it just watching your every move?

“Some statistics about Belfast: there will be 70,000 more residents and 50,000 more people working in the city by 2030.

“Citizen data should encourage movement for everyone in that city. However, it’s getting harder for people to move through a city as the population grows.

“How is data being collected; how is it being used?”

Speaker: Deirdre Ferguson, senior consultant, Smart Belfast, Belfast City Council

We lead a range of urban innovation projects.

Some statistics about the Belfast Agenda:

  • There will be 66,000 new residents by 2035
  • We aim for a 33pc reduction in the life expectancy gap between the most and least deprived neighbourhoods in Belfast by 2035
  • We want to see that 100pc of young people leaving school have a destination that fulfils their potential
  • 46,000 more jobs by 2035

You can review the initiative at

We want to harness tech, innovation and data for the benefit of our citizens, and to deliver on the major ambitions that we have in the Belfast agenda. That’s what we’re talking about when we talk about Belfast as a smart city. A smart city isn’t really about having technology at the core … it’s about the citizen.

Modern digital infrastructure – to promote a city where people have the right skills to create value from the technologies that not only exist already, but emerging ones. We’re trying to apply this to city problems:

  • Child poverty on the increase
  • High number of young people leaving school without qualifications
  • Belfast is top of the UK cities for traffic congestion
  • Air quality, impacts on health
  • Health problems, growing ageing population
  • We still have 100 peace walls dividing the city

We’re supporting urban innovation through:

  • City Wi-Fi
  • Full fibre bid (we just won a new bid)
  • We’ve applied to be a 5G testbed (DCMS bid submitted today – we’ll know in July)
  • Drone technologies
  • Immersive technologies
  • We’re in the Rockefeller 100 Resilient Cities, drawing in millions of pounds of investment from the Rockefeller network
  • City deal: We’re making a major bid in conjunction with five other local authorities and will hopefully bring £1bn to make changes in digital infrastructure, innovation, tourism and skills. We’re working very hard to get that bid together
  • Last-mile delivery: Working with Dublin City Council about the delivery of parcels

Smart is about people; technology comes second. It’s about putting people at the heart of everything we do.

Email us at

Speaker: Prof Chris Nugent, School of Computing, Smart Environments Research Group, Ulster University

Smart city or surveillance city? We very much address this from technology up.

What makes a city smart? How do we get the technology in, connect everything together and make sense out of it? We just haven’t made the most of this in a city scale or a regional scale.

We take data from sensors and use it to govern an environment. It brings up a lot of questions about who owns that data.

There are four different types of data we can monitor: video, sensor, activity, physiological.

Video shows exactly how you’re in the environment. We can look at how a person interacts with someone else, how doors open, who sits on a seat, how many people enter a room or leave a room.

Fine data that we can gather, and analysis of the data, can show things about behaviour. For instance, monitoring someone’s heart rate. If it shoots up dramatically, if we knew that person just ran up the steps three times – by seeing it on a video, it wouldn’t trigger any alarm.

Data, for me, is the most valuable commodity that we have. The more high-quality data we can avail of, the better analysis we can do.

Rapid prototyping – if we’re thinking about a smart city, the first thing my comment would be is, we don’t really have a smart city, from a tech point of view. We spend too much time talking about the problem and not enough time spent delivering solutions. We need to be more agile – rapid prototyping is necessary.

Until we get the solutions rolled out on a larger scale, we might not understand the positive or negative impact they might have.

Smart or surveillance? It depends on what a person is comfortable with. Higher-resolution video means better data.

For more information on the Ulster University master’s course in internet of things (IoT), click here.

Speaker: Conall Laverty, CEO and founder, Wia

We’re building a network where people and things go to talk.

Within the IoT, in the next 24 hours, 8.6m devices will connect. And €1.9bn will be spent in transactions by people and devices.

Laverty then discussed how Wia enables anyone to connect any device to the IoT, which is outlined in this previous TechWatch article.

Speaker: Eilish Bouse, data scientist, Arity

My opinions on smart cities will have a strong slant towards transportation, due to my work at Arity.

A smart city understands its problems and works to solve them. No two cities are the same – transport is different, people visit for different reasons.

We need to collect data, analyse patterns – collaborating effectively, tracking progress. The best way for companies to get access to better data is collaborating with stakeholders – councils, organisations, universities.

There’s a big-data paradox: some cities have loads of data, more then they know what to do with, but at the same time not enough data to make decisions. In terms of transport, you can have multimodal data that doesn’t talk to each other – bike, rapid transport, walking.

Security and regulation are key concerns. We might not be OK with sharing granular data like our location data with the city.

The city of Atlanta was subjected to a ransomware cyberattack where all their systems were shut down for five days. GDPR and FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] all affect how data is collected and shared.

There’s a research app that my colleagues in Chicago are using – it tracks how people move around the city and on what modes of transport. We’ve been running the app in Chicago for more than a year. At the aggregate level, the data shows how people use a city.

Here in Belfast, we do have open data – metro buses, bike data. It shows what stations are most popular. It’s available on

I think we have a responsibility to share open data to make it a smarter city, to grow the data network and show what we’re interested in.

smart city panel

Panel discussion. Image: TechWatch

Panel discussion

Audience members were asked to stand up and give their thoughts.

Audience 1: What’s your main priority, convenience or data protection? We hope it’s a false dichotomy and the two can both exist. We feel people are willing to share data if you can see improvements. You could almost see it as the duty of a citizen to share data for purposeful reasons.

Audience 2: We looked at the same question, and we came down on the side of convenience. Unfortunately, the only time citizens hear about data is when something goes wrong. There’s fear built up around negative PR.

Audience 3: Incentivising the citizen – your app knows that you go to work at a particular time and it might advise you to leave it later because environmentally it’s not sound, or it will offer you a discount for the bus. No company will write that, but the government can.

Audience 4: Put on sensors, open up the APIs and have an open app marketplace.

Does having high-quality data mean more data on an individual?

Laverty: We’re working with companies setting up cameras around cities with facial recognition that gives demographic data like age, gender. We can take the data and then delete the image, so we’re using the data but not the individual.

How easy is it for people to hack that?

Laverty: It’s still really anonymised, you can’t really tell who that person is. That’s why it’s important to create a Snapchat-esque environment where you strip the data that’s useful out and then delete the rest.

Is there any plan to use city data that people will be willing to give? I would give my cycling data as long as it’s completely hassle-free.

Ferguson: In terms of the projects that we’re putting out as challenges, it’s about opening up datasets – we’re exploring the possibility of having an open data platform.

We’re in the very early stages of smart city work, we’re learning from other cities. We also work with Sustrans – one of the demonstrator projects has been with See.Sense, trialling with around 200 bikes around the city, showing which routes are used the most, where cyclists are going.

What about GDPR – how does that affect it?

Ferguson: We’re being very careful about personal data. It’s about communication and informing people around the use of the data. My background is community development and you do have to communicate with people how it’s being used. It’s just going back to good practice that’s been around for centuries.

Laverty: We brought in a few things; for example, making sure everyone is over 13, making sure everyone had signed up for our newsletter. For anyone who connects a device to our platform, we don’t look at that data, we just enable people to build things.

Also, another impact is, US companies aren’t doing business in Europe at all now – I know a company that lost their US supplier and they had to close.

Are we going to have a smart city or a surveillance city?

Laverty: We can do all these really nice things but how do we take a problem that is big and get some commercial backing? How do we use the PoCs and make them something that people can use?

Bouse: I always think smart city. I think it’s not really of use for the city in the short term to track us individually, it’s the collective data that’s useful.

Ferguson: From the council’s point of view, we’re very smart – we’re certainly not a dumb city. We have a huge talent pool in the city that we need to harness and maximise. There’s a bridge to be made between citizen and technology, and how it can be used for the benefit of citizens.

By Emily McDaid, editor, TechWatch

A version of this article originally appeared on TechWatch

TechWatch by Catalyst covered tech developments in Northern Ireland