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The secret to building a smart city that’s antiracist

Instead of simply extracting data from residents, make sure communities get involved in deciding how technology is deployed.

The secret to building a smart city that’s antiracist
[Photo: Patrick Tomasso/Unsplash]

In the face of COVID-19, the smart city movement has increasingly gained momentum. Drones, autonomous freight, and AI-based remote temperature sensing are among some of the new technologies that companies have partnered with cities to deploy in recent months. Smart city advocates insist that the crisis provides a key opportunity to digitally transform urban spaces for good. As the Silicon Valley “innovation firm” Strategy of Things notes, “The adoption of innovative smart city technologies such as the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, and 5G, offers the potential for cities to respond to the pandemic more effectively and will be crucial in both curbing the spread of the virus and restarting our economy.”

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But although people of color are the majority of residents in many cities, and Black and Latinx people are disproportionately suffering from the COVID-19 disease and its economic fallout, race is notably absent from this conversation. Smart city initiatives are presented as “color blind,” claiming to monitor and assist all urban residents equally, yet these technologies too often enhance hypersurveillance of communities of color. Most smart city efforts extract information from poor people, primarily people of color, to power technologies that target sites for business investment and often accelerate gentrification. Thus, these “free” public initiatives are paid for by data from communities of color while threatening the ability of those very same communities to remain part of the city. They determine whose information is collected for profit and who gets to maintain their privacy, while at the same time accelerating displacement.

LinkNYC, for example, provides internet kiosks throughout the city which users can access for free if they agree to share personal information. While few formal studies have been conducted on user demographics, a recent Atlantic article noted that those who can’t afford broadband access, a population that is predominantly people of color, are most likely the majority of users. The terms most commonly searched by people using LinkNYC tablets last year were “work,” “housing health,” and “public benefits,” while a recent Daily News article termed the kiosks “homeless hubs.” Although LinkNYC recently improved its privacy policy due to public criticism, experts insist that the kiosks still present privacy concerns for users, the majority of whom are people of color. Urban residents who can afford to never use public Wi-Fi get to maintain their privilege of privacy.

[Photo: Epicgenius/Wikimedia Commons]
Uber’s Mobility Lab in Cincinnati similarly extracts data from marginalized communities. After cities fought for years to gain access to the data collected through Uber’s mobility platforms, the company launched the Lab, which uses Uber ridership data to help the city optimize planning and identify the best places for “business expansion” and “investment.” Initiatives that emerge from the Lab will be powered through data produced by drivers’ labor, the majority of whom are also people of color. The Lab recently produced a report analyzing Uber’s dataset and proposed recommendations to optimize mobility. The city plans to use the report for transit-oriented development, which has historically enabled gentrification and displacement of low-income households. While the city expects to engage community members when they move forward with the report’s recommendations, the Lab did not incorporate any community input even though many of the recommendations are targeted at underserved neighborhoods.

The COSMOS project in Harlem also threatens to exacerbate the disproportionate surveillance of communities of color. Covering one square mile in Harlem, the COSMOS wireless network will be used to test new ways to support data-intensive smart city initiatives. Like LinkNYC and Uber Mobility Lab, this experiment will be powered by mobility data, such as vehicle and pedestrian movement patterns, from Harlem’s residents who are predominantly people of color. Although the data collected will not contain personal information, experts have noted that mobility data can easily be de-anonymized. As NYC hopes the project will attract startups to the area that can use the testbed to develop new smart city applications, the project threatens to intensify already rampant gentrification in the area.

Despite these problems, smart city tech is not going away. Instead, it has intensified with the public health imperative to monitor and track COVID-19 cases and enforce social distancing efforts. For example, the company Draganfly recently began testing a drone equipped with sensors and computer vision to detect fevers, respiratory rates, and coughs in several U.S. cities. These drones are particularly dangerous for communities that have historically suffered from state surveillance, including undocumented people, Black men, Native Americans, and transgender women of color. For these populations, being visible to law enforcement often means deportation, assault, and even death.

The racial inequities that emerge from state surveillance efforts are already apparent in government enforcement of stay-at-home measures which have disproportionately impacted people of color: 98% of social distancing arrests made in Brooklyn from March 17 to May 4 were people of color even though they make up just 50% of the population. Given the racial discrimination embedded in existing enforcement efforts and the dearth of drone regulatory policy at the local level, this emerging technology threatens to disproportionately surveil and target communities of color.

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Instead of a smart city model that extracts from, surveils, and displaces poor people of color, we need a democratic model that allows community members to decide how technological infrastructure operates and to ensure the equitable distribution of benefits. Doing so will allow us to create cities defined by inclusion, shared ownership, and shared prosperity.

In 2016, Barcelona, for example, launched its Digital City Plan, which aims to empower residents with control of technology used in their communities. The document incorporates over 8,000 proposals from residents and includes plans for open source software, government ownership of all ICT infrastructure, and a pilot platform to help citizens maintain control over their personal data. As a result, the city now has free applications that allow residents to easily propose city development ideas, actively participate in city council meetings, and choose how their data is shared.

In the U.S., we need a framework for tech sovereignty that incorporates a racial equity approach: In a racist society, race neutrality facilitates continued exclusion and exploitation of people of color. Digital Justice Lab in Toronto illustrates one critical element of this kind of approach: access to information. In 2018, the organization gave community groups a series of grants to hold public events that shared resources and information about digital rights. Their collaborative approach intentionally focuses on the specific needs of people of color and other marginalized groups.

The turn toward intensified surveillance infrastructure in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak makes the need to adopt such practices all the more crucial. Democratic tech models that uplift marginalized populations provide us the chance to build a city that is just and open to everyone.


Eliza McCullough is an associate at PolicyLink, a national research and action institute advancing racial and economic equity. McCullough analyzes issues of workforce equity and inclusion for the equitable economy team and provides research support to National Equity Atlas, Bay Area Equity Atlas, and All-In-Cities projects.

This story has been updated to reflect LinkNYC’s privacy policy.

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