Nils Walravens is a senior researcher at IMEC and the SMIT research group at the Free University of Brussels (VUB). He obtained a PhD in Media and Communication Studies with a thesis on smart city business models (2016). His research takes a broad perspective on the role of governments in smart cities, exploring among others the tension between the public and private sectors in the domain of smart cities. Nils is the coordinator of Smart Flanders , a programme that tackles some of the current challenges in open data and supports the thirteen centre cities in Flanders with opening up their data. Taking a business view on open data in the city, his work explores the potential business value of open data and how opening up data allows cities to engage with the market. Nils’s recent book can be found here.
How did you develop an interest in digital technologies and smart cities?
I studied communication sciences at VUB, where the programme was focused on media and the power structures associated with media companies. In my master thesis I explored the introduction of HDTV in Flanders, which is in part commercial but also had a very long European policy background on the level of hardware and media content. I continued along these lines when I started working at SMIT, where my first project explored similar policy challenges within the mobile applications sector. The mobile ecosystem at that time looked completely different from what it is today, as my research started in the year before the first iPhone was launched. This meant that the sector was dominated by the traditional telecom operators, and my project explored their transition to the mobile apps eco system we see today. I for instance looked at what mobile applications could become and what mobile phones could potentially mean for different aspects of society.
In my PhD project, which was funded by the Brussels government (Innoviris, the Brussels Institute for Research and Innovation), I further explored precisely that question: what could be the role of mobile apps in the context of the city? This was still before a lot of people were using the ‘smart city’ concept to tackle this type of questions. While I was doing my research, the notion of smart cities become much more popular and widely adopted. I decided to contribute to ongoing debates surrounding smart cities by looking exploring how governments (and the Brussels government in particular) could foster the use of mobile apps in the city.
Smartphones and the applications running on them are the closest proxy that we have to actual smart cities technologies
My interest in the relationship between mobile devices and smart cities was sparked by a belief that I still hold today, namely that smartphones and the applications running on them are the closets proxy that we have to actual smart cities technologies. They for instance still beat many of the devices we carry on our wrist or that may be incorporated in glasses. Phones can provide you with detailed information that is catered to the location you are in, the things you are interested in and all of this at a very specific moment in time. The relationship between your physical location and your mobile device (along with the services that it can offer you) is very tight.
Building on that, how do you think we can further improve our technologies to bridge gaps between the digital realm of data and information on the on hand, and the material context of the city on the other?
Technologies can indeed fulfill a range of interfacing roles. In that regard, I think one of the major challenges we are facing today is that technologies are becoming more and more invisible. People are not aware that they are being tracked, monitored or followed, or that information is being collected about them. They are not really sure about how certain services arrived on their phones as they cannot always access all of the services going on in the background. A lot of attention should therefore be paid to visualizing data, whether it is on a watch or on an interactive billboard or via some other medium. We need to be very aware about how information is presented and represented. Those things to me are crucial and I think that governments can play a part here as well, as they should be transparent about how information is harvested and which aspects of it are actually shown to citizens.
One of the major challenges we are facing today is that technologies are becoming more and more invisible.
One of the aspects of this that I also explore in my research is the tension between the public and private value that results from emerging data services – or, in other words: the commodification of the public space. At a certain point, it becomes very difficult to keep track of who is actually monitoring us or who is using your data for certain services. This could for instance be a third party, it could be the government, or it could be some third party performing an assignment for the government. As technologies evolve to the point of being almost invisible, governments should be very clear about who is doing what and why.
When it comes to this topic of increasing governmental and corporate transparency, what is the next big challenge that we as citizens are facing?
I think the challenges ahead are mostly related to awareness. We can for instance see that concepts like media literacy and data literacy are becoming more and more prominent. These ideas for instance hinge on educating people in being more critical about the services that are on their phones or about how data is being collected from their phones. Of course, in some cases, people can be so locked in that they are not aware of this or that they cannot act on the knowledge they have, but raising awareness and providing education seem like a good start in any case. And I do see that things are starting to change in that area. In my own personal circle, for instance, more and more people are getting fed up with Facebook. As they learn about personal data being either hacked or lost or leaked, and scandal upon scandal is piling up, some have even left Facebook altogether. And rightly so, as such scandals can have a huge impact on people. If we could somehow make people aware of such problems from a young age, for instance through our educational system, that will already be a big leap forward.
Additionally, I think we should also provide people with the tools to actively deal with these systems. This could for instance be achieved by focusing more on coding in education. Not all of us have to become programmers, of course, but it is important to understand at least the basics of code, being able to comprehend what is happening with an algorithm or what is going on within a company or service. In this regard, we still have a long way to go and as of yet, we are not even close.
As more and more services are switching to digital, we need to constantly be aware that we are not locking people out.
Related to all of this, and what I believe to be crucial, is that we don’t leave people out. The education we provide today is aimed mostly at the coming generations. But what about the people that are here now, and that are not very aware of technology or do not have the skill for dealing with technology? We need to focus on inclusion and exclusion. Especially as technologies are becoming invisible, we have to make sure that we don’t lose people. This can for instance be noticed already with banks and public services that are reducing their opening hours and moving everything to websites or apps. While doing this, we need to constantly be aware that we are not locking people out. As public entities, governments should take up their responsibilities here.
Do you see a solution to his? How do you prevent people from being locked out when new apps or services are being developed?
A potential solution is engaging directly with people from more vulnerable groups in order to understand their requirements, the challenges they face and the skills they have in order to design interfaces and means of interaction around that. In our research group, we are for instance focusing on research that combines inclusion research with smart cities research in order to see how services can be improved.
To be able to do this type of research, we can build on experience that we have built up over the years. We for instance try to operationalize interactions between different stakeholders in living labs. Through different methodologies, we make sure that the sociologists, psychologists, engineers or political scientists involved in those labs can communicate with each other as well as the man on the street. An important principle here is iteration. The idea of a living lab is that you go out into the real world, do tests with the end users and learn from that. Then you iterate by going back to the engineers, give them your feedback, make adjustments and go out to test again. In this process, you involve the engineers and end users from the get-go. You engage with them long before the first line of code is written and familiarize them with ideas through wireframes, proxy technologies, demonstrators or other methods. A key aspect of this process of iteration is having the room to experiment, fail, and try again. For us, this approach seems to really work out well.
Governments, however, still seem to struggle with this type of approach. Their resources are limited, and since they are working with public money, there is very little margin for error: things have to work from the very start. This is why some government-developed apps our services turn out badly. They don’t work properly or have bad interfaces because governments quite often don’t have the time or resources to do all of the required validations or iterations.
How can researchers then efficiently engage with governments on topics like open data?
There are a number of factors at play here. You will always find people who are motivated and who want to participate and engage or change the way the organization works. Local governments however, often have a capacity problem. They don’t have the people or the resources to do this type of projects. Similarly, rather strict organizational cultures can be a problem.
A lot of people however are really willing to think about how to do things in different ways, but this is a process that can take time. We somewhat underestimated this when starting up Smart Flanders. We have seen a lot of goodwill and enthusiasm on behalf of our partners, but we are not talking to 13 “cities”, there are 13 people around the table who also need to go back to their organizations to report and communicate what was said at meetings, convince people that smart cities and open data are something that governments need to think about and what the potential value of those ideas can be for cities.
Picking up on the concept of open data, can you shed some light on the current status of open data in Belgium and beyond?
Most people tend to agree with the fact that open data is important. The ways in which it is implemented however, can be very different. You can for instance be for open data because it creates more transparent government. It can also provide more financial transparency, for instance on what governments are doing with tax payer money. Open data could be used as an argument for more efficient or less government, as it frees governments from having to build applications themselves: they can provide the data and let others build those apps. Open data can also foster innovation by allowing companies to innovate more quickly, which in turn is good for the economy and creates jobs.
A clear prerequisite for open data is having good data hygiene.
There are also a number of relevant arguments against open data and a range of questions that we need to ask ourselves. A clear prerequisite for open data is having good data hygiene. This entails that governments and civil servants need to be very aware of the data they are working with. For instance, when you are writing a Word file or putting stuff into Excel you are creating data. Measures need to be in place to deal with those types of data. From an ethical perspective for example, you need to be able to track where data came from when something went wrong. In some cases, implementing data hygiene is also a matter of digitization, as there are agencies currently still working with paper documents rather than digital information. The concept of data hygiene is thus broader than that of data quality, as it also concerns questions of awareness and creating valid processes.
Debates surrounding smart cities and internet of things (IOT) have definitely also been complicating factors in the adoption of open data. A lot of open questions for instance remain when it comes to publishing real-time open data. How can we for instance do that in a scalable way? How are we going to manage and archive the potential volume of data coming from all of these sensors? How long do we have to keep the data or how long do we want to keep data? We also need to think about how to achieve all of this in a cost-effective manner.
Apart from these discussions, there are also a few more organizational or governance-related questions surrounding open data. One debate in this regard is that of centralization vs. decentralization. From the perspective of Smart Flanders, we are pro publishing data in a decentralized way. Each city should be allowed to publish their own data on (or “in”) their website, but according to a shared standard, so the data become retrievable from the Flemish open data portal and as a result also from the federal and European open data platforms. A question related to this is on which level do you bring data together. Should each department in a city publish its own data in a decentralized way? Or do all local governments (including the small town where I grew up) need an open data portal on their website, as is already the case for Antwerp, Ghent and Kortrijk? I don’t think so. So at which level do we decentralize or do we centralize data? What is the responsibility or the task of all the intermediate layers of government that we still have, such as the provinces?
Fostering open data thus requires careful consideration of the core competences of government and an ethical evaluation of what can or cannot be left to the market. One way of thinking about this could be that the role of government is mainly to provide good-quality information and making sure that the data that are available stay up. Building the apps could then be left to others. However, there are also arguments to be made for a scenario in which governments build their own apps and services. Here, market failure could be a good metric. If there is no company developing the app, the government itself could take up responsibility. But could we imagine other scenarios as well? These are open questions, and opinions seem to shift back and forth.
One key observation that we have made concerning open data is that simply opening up whatever information does not work. There has to be clear vision behind opening up data: how are we going to open things up, what are we going to open up and what kinds of reuse would we like to see? Communication about these aspects is important, and stakeholders need to understand each other. The market for instance needs to be informed about why certain datasets are not openly available. We could use more of those discussions, I believe.
If you had to think about an app or any type of service that you would like to see built, what would it be?
Something in the area of mobility is the first thing that comes to mind. There still is so much mobility-related information that is not available as open data. A lot of data sharing is going on in the mobility sector, but the data are not necessarily completely open to be reused. A field that is still developing in that domain is intermodal and multimodal route planning, that is, finding an ideal route at a specific moment in time, based on my personal preferences. Would it not be great if an app could let me know that my train is delayed and I do not need to rush on my bike? A very good intermodal route planning app that preferably also allows me to buy my ticket is something that I would like to see. An interesting and seemingly contradictory observation here is that in order to create more personalized services you need more generic data. I do believe that you need more authentic, more generic information about the environment so that you can start building more personalized and more relevant services.
In order to create more personalized services, you need more generic data.
Apps that would allow more efficient data sharing between governments interest me as well. What really annoys me is when I am being asked for the same information over and over again by governments. There should be safe and secure ways for governments to share data on citizens that just makes their lives easier.
A short question to wrap up: if you had to recommend one book to the readers of this blog , what would it be?
The first thing that pops into my head, because I recently reread it, is actually a manga called Battle Angel Alita. To me, this is the most beautiful manga ever written. It is about a distant future where technology has permeated every aspect of the story world, including the bodies of the characters. This view is both utopian and dystopian at the same time and the story is captivating. I read it for the first time at the age of thirteen or fourteen, and today I still think it is fantastic and gives a unique view on what would happen if we completely let technology run wild.
Questions about this topic? Contact me here