Smart-city technology in Oak Park: promise vs. privacy

Opinion: Columns

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David Baker

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Not long before the start of this unprecedented year, the Civic Information Systems Commission (CISC) began investigating potential "smart city" options for Oak Park, in anticipation of new fiber optic infrastructure approved for the 2020 fiscal year. This fiber was necessary for village IT staff to provide needed speed and redundancy where the existing aging connections were lacking. The new fiber was, in the commission's belief, necessary for public safety in that the fast and redundant links would keep all village satellite locations online, working efficiently, and at low risk for failure. 

Though this project had big potential to improve government services, it also could pay back dividends to residents for many years to come through smart-city applications exploiting the high-speed connections provided by the fiber. The CISC, a technology advisory commission to the Oak Park Board of Trustees, added smart cities to its 2020 work plan in response to the board's wishes to investigate technological solutions that could improve quality of life in Oak Park. 

Imagine networked village-wide sensors making possible signaling for improved traffic flow, parking space management, infrastructure integrity and efficiency, air quality monitoring … the possibilities seemed endless. Taxing bodies could also lease bandwidth on the village's future-proofed fiber and link its campuses, providing added value to their stakeholders while adding a bit of expense-offset to village coffers. As chair of the CISC, it was an exciting topic for me to explore with CISC members, investigating what cities around the country and world were implementing to raise quality of life for citizens and reduce expenses. 

Now, we have a coronavirus pandemic raging with no end in sight, racial equity discussion that is long overdue, and a municipal budget that has taken a huge blow from COVID-19 response and revenue loss while we were already experiencing the pain of high property taxes. While it's great that Oak Park is still getting its fiber to uphold critical operations, smart-city projects seem to be on hold while we get our bearings with other more pressing issues. 

Still, we can start contemplating how we'd like to see smart-city solutions work for Oak Park. It seems obvious that first priority should be given to solutions that cost relatively little, and provide a big financial payback to the village. But personal privacy will likely (and rightfully) be top of many lists of priorities and concerns. Certain apps, in order to perform the intended outcome, need to track human movement to some extent. What trade-offs are we willing to accept? How much of our privacy are we willing to give up for the sake of convenience? How do we define "quality of life"?

To give an example, there is evidence that some countries got ahead of COVID-19 quickly by utilizing smart phone apps that allowed GPS tracking of people known to be COVID positive. The app would alert you when someone with COVID was within short range, allowing you the chance to socially distance. Virus spread was limited and lives were saved, which is undoubtedly a good thing. But do we want apps to know that much about us, or our whereabouts? How else could an app exploit personal information for financial or malicious gain?

Smart-city technology is exciting, but we will need to do some soul-searching about what level of privacy we are willing to give up for the sake of life improvement. I believe smart-city data should be kept as secure as possible, and provide direct benefit to the residents. Even though worthy solutions need good data about people's behavior to allow the technology to improve lives, people can be clever about what information should be divulged. There are many stakeholders in this, from the citizens to government to app developers. I've heard some say that they believe people ultimately need to evolve with technology as it progresses, but I believe we all have a say in the evolution of technology and how it ultimately serves everyone.

David Baker is chair of the Civic Information Systems Commission and lives in Oak Park.

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