Datawalking through the city of Helmond with local city council members

What is the role of the local council in the ‘Smart City’? With this question in mind, BOLD researchers Vivien Butot, Sabrina Huizenga-Rahmawan, Margot Kersing and Merlina Slotboom embarked on data walks with interested local city council members and civil servants of the municipality of Helmond.

The goal of such a data walk is to raise awareness of all the data that is already being collected in the city. Data is often seen as something abstract, and by showcasing data in the public space it becomes not only visible but also negotiable, a political choice rather than something that overcomes us.

Digitalization and datafication are often considered inevitable – and this sentiment was also felt in the discussion that followed the data walks in the council chamber. Yet, as several council members pointed out, data is not always the solution, but potentially only one of the means to fight the symptoms. This also opens room for the local councils to make certain choices.

Discussion about the 'smart city' in the local city council hall in Helmond

Another discussion in the local council focused on the trade-off between safety and privacy. Not surprisingly: The data sensors most often noticed during the data walks were cameras – both public and private ones – which have become a symbol of datafication in the city.  While most council members seemed to foreground the importance of safety, several questioned whether the statement “I don’t have anything to hide” holds true under all circumstances.

Digital illiteracy was another topic that caused concerns among council members, showing again that digital solutions do not work for everybody in the city. Tackling digital illiteracy was identified as one of the key tasks of the council and the municipality.

Local council members also agreed that with all the developments in the smart city values such as transparency and purpose limitation should be safeguarded. Several stressed the role of the council in better informing citizens about data sensors and data collection.

Vivien Butot concluded that the discussion in council chamber showed that the “topic was very much alive” – perhaps the most important conclusion of the day. Too often the role of technology in local government are nor discussed as a political issue, where choices by administrators must be made. The discussion in the local council in Helmond, however, shows that data and datafication are in fact very much linked to political choices by council members.