Words: Richard Beecham, Local Democracy Reporter
Real-time messages about air quality in parts of Leeds could soon be sent out to citizens to help “influence behaviour change”, a Leeds City Council meeting has heard.
Among the council’s “smart cities” project are plans to use devices to collect data, which the authority says would be used to improve services in the city.
A document, which went before the council’s Infrastructure Scrutiny Board, listed sensors around the city centre to monitor pedestrian and traffic levels, “civic credits” to be awarded to people for healthy lifestyles and further air quality sensors as possibilities for the future.
Senior officers at Leeds City Council said the data would be used ethically, and help the council improve services.
But one member of the panel said some of the plans reminded him of “East Germany” and called for an assurance that the data would be collected and used ethically.
Referring to a section of the report claiming the council was a trusted organisation with regards to people’s data, Coun Neil Buckley (Con) said:
“It sounds a bit like something out of Deutschland 83, doesn’t it? East Germany and all that. Could you reassure me that’s not the case?
“On the term ‘internet of things’, it sounds a bit similar, devices such as air quality monitors, could they be used quickly to produce something like a congestion charge?”
East Germany was a communist state overseen by a state security service known as the Stasi – an organisation famous for collecting large amounts of data about individuals. It was recently depicted in the popular German drama series Deutschland 83.
Leeds City Council officer Stephen Blackburn said:
“I think in terms of data ethics and the innovation projects and how we collect data in the future, it is important as a foundation that we have the trust from our customers, citizens and tenants, that we manage their data in the right way.
“I would say there is a certain amount of data scepticism around at the moment. People are sceptical about what data is being collected and who has access to it.
“I think we are a trusted organisation in terms of managing the data, and I think we do things in the right way, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t need to do more to convince some of our citizens.
“Increasingly, we need to do more of that to say our partners have the same ethical values that we do, and we are collecting data for all the right reasons.”
He also spoke of the need to “reassure” tenants that the data being collected will improve services.
“I’m not sure about the congestion charge,” he added. “I think there would need to be another piece in the puzzle of identifying vehicles, but that is not to say that collecting the data on a future data platform enables us to do innovative things in the future as well.”
He added that real time messages about air quality could be put out to people living in different parts of the city to help “influence behaviour change”.
Speaking earlier in the meeting, chairman of the committee Coun Paul Truswell said:
“Just a short time ago, these would have fallen into the realm of science fiction, but they are here today or tomorrow. It is quite enlightening.
“The important thing is that we continue to roll out these facilities – and how we make the technology our servant and not our master. How do we ensure we make that data easily available to citizens as part of the democratic process.
“We should ensure the data and way of collecting it is trusted and secure.”
As part of the plans, the council also wants to develop a “smart cycling” app to help cyclists gain “increased priority” through traffic signals, as well as being able to report problems around the network, such as fallen trees and broken glass.
The document claimed “phase three” of the smart cities project would create a new “purpose-built innovation space” on an area of currently disused land around 2023.