Professor Antonio Capone of the Politecnico di Milano University talks to Neil Tyler about smart city data and the issue of privacy.

Based at the Politecnico di Milano University in Italy, Professor Antonio Capone is leading a team of experts in applied and basic research that is focused on the Internet of Things (IoT), and the university’s IoT Laboratory is conducting research into how to design for the implementation of complex IoT systems.

In particular the professor’s team is targeting different vertical application scenarios whether that’s smart buildings, factories or smart cities. The IoT Laboratory’s work is focused on all the elements that form part of the IoT technology stack whether that’s sensors and actuators for remote monitoring and control, communication systems, edge computing, cloud platforms or advanced user interfaces.

“The Laboratory is a test-bed for the collection of information from the physical world and operates much like an open "platform" for the development of different vertical applications,” explains Prof. Capone.

This IoT Laboratory provides support to applied research that’s aimed at the design, development and testing of solutions related to the IoT, and its services are offered to Politecnico di Milano research groups as well as to external public and private parties, as part of collaboration agreements and research projects.

“At the moment we are currently working across a number of different domains but one area of particular interest is smart cities,” explains Prof. Capone.

When it comes to collecting data it’s necessary to use thousands of touchpoints that citizens will come into contact with every day. Each IoT device that gets integrated into a smart city will be used to collect data which will then be used to inform usage and help optimise services for citizens.

“One significant area of research that we are involved in is related to smart devices and their use in the smart city to monitor pedestrian numbers and movement,” explains the professor.

“We have created what we call ‘smart gates’, essentially an evolution of flow monitoring devices that are equipped with cameras and that use wireless technology – such as WI-Fi and Bluetooth – to monitor pedestrian traffic.”

By regularly and accurately analysing the data that’s provided by these ‘gates’ it’s possible to draw insights on how pedestrians navigate the city, identifying problems and issues that will, in turn, lead to better decision making.

“We have been using these devices to analyse the movement of people using public transport. These ‘gates’, together with an associated app, are able to provide us with data that is helping us to better understand and monitor traffic flows. We can use that data to identify patterns, estimate flow and by using the associated camera technology to better understand who is using the network – not just numbers but their gender and age,” according to the professor.

Prof. Capone says that these types of devices will start to appear more frequently in the coming years and will become increasingly viable in cities as they use data-driven solutions to address everyday challenges, benefiting not just people, but the environment and the wider economy.

Data privacy

While Prof. Capone is a keen advocate of smart cities and believes that one of their key benefits is that they will enable authorities to leverage data to create safer, more sustainable societies he is concerned that there needs to be a better balance between privacy and how the technology is deployed and the data is used.

“Look, in the EU we have GDPR to regulate our privacy. It was established to ensure that data was accessed and used with the consent of the user, but I don’t believe that the legislation is sufficient,” he argues.

“In Europe, we are in a good position to understand and strike a better balance between technology and privacy. There is one aspect that, in my opinion, needs to be reformed and that is around the whole concept of consent.”

At present the professor believes that the way in which consent is obtained from a user is inadequate.

“Consent is not in the full control of the user, due to the way in which it is implemented. Simply clicking your ‘acceptance’ is not sufficient. I think most people do so without truly understanding what they are doing. We need to force applications and systems to allow the average user to really be in control of their privacy settings.

“That can be achieved by using easy to understand and user friendly interfaces, but also by providing a general repository of all consents made by the individual, so that they can be reviewed, updated and amended. That would hand control back to the individual,” he believes.

According to the professor there are a number of projects that are trying to create such a single point, in order to better manage privacy concerns.

Concerns over privacy have become more apparent in light of the on-going pandemic and the use of smart technologies to monitor how crowded services are getting or helping to manage occupancy levels while ensuring social distancing

“IoT and connectivity will play a crucial role in reassuring citizens that they are safe, but their privacy has to be taken into account.

"What is interesting is that with the advent of new technologies, like edge computing and 5G, it will be possible to process video, for example, in the camera or in a local data centre without the data having to be stored. This means that you can be more accurate about what you record and what you extract from a video.

“If you can control what gets taken and guarantee what and how that is then used I think we can overcome concerns regarding privacy,” according to Prof. Capone.

When it comes to technology trust and transparency are critical, and the only way to really ensure that is to have multiple controls over the data, according to the professor.

“One key lesson that we’ve learned is that no single service provider should have control over data, there needs to be an external authority that can control the data bases or ensure that the data is used only as permitted.

“It could be conducted through the specific extraction of data or you could use a certification method which would be responsible for how data is distributed. Responsibility needs to be distributed and in Europe, where the use and access to data is a highly sensitive issue, I think it’s possible to achieve.”

Whether a tighter form of orchestration will be possible when it comes to managing data is still being discussed, and it will have to be part of a much broader public sector response to smart city projects