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How Data Privatization Will Change Planning Practice

Planners will be presented with new challenges and opportunities in a new era of data-enhanced government.
July 20, 2015, 2pm PDT | Kendra L. Smith and Kevin C. Desouza
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For urban planners, the promise of data offers unprecedented access to information, citizen engagement, and solutions to some of the most significant challenges facing urban areas, such as traffic, infrastructure, and pollution. Data used for land use and planning decisions are largely collected and owned by government entities, however, in the near future, private companies will increasingly maintain data.

This might be frightening to some citizens, but these notions of data privatization are nothing new. Much of our data are already going to private companies such as Facebook, which collects approximately 500 terabytes of data on its users each day, and Google, which has incredible abilities to mine user information from email and its many other applications. In our report, Local Government 2035: Strategic trends and implications of new technologies, we outline trends in data security, privatization, and dependency that are likely to be fully developed 20 years from now in hopes of spurring discussion amongst the people that will be impacted by it most: citizens and public agencies.

Private companies are collecting data on consumers during processes we take little time to consider. Take, for instance, wearable technologies such as fitness trackers that monitor your activity and, essentially, quantify your lifestyle by counting movements, heart rate, sleep patterns, and location. The research firm Markets and Markets projects that the wearables industry will be an $11 billion market by 2020, largely through the sale of wristwear and footwear. In addition to tracking what you want them to track, wearables can track other types of data about the user that can be subject to leaking or abuse. In a 2015 study by Symantec Corp of wearables, they found that 100 percent of the devices were trackable. Additionally, they find that one in five were also transmitting user-generated data (i.e., names, passwords, email addresses) without encryption.

Similar to how advertisers pay companies for their data, public agencies might soon begin paying the private sector for its data. However, the public sector will need more than just data; the public sector will also need the private sector for data maintenance, management, and acquisition. For instance, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced in 2014 that they will explore location information by establishing a national license tracking system that could potentially scan massive numbers of license plates. Privacy and civil liberty concerns over allowing DHS that level of access to citizen whereabouts without warrants prompted DHS to seek bids from companies that already gather the data and would grant Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) access.

The trend of public agencies sharing data has several important implications for planners to note. First, as data ownership, data collection, and data storage of most data on citizens moves from public to private, new attention will be paid to finding an appropriate collaborative balance with the private sector.

Currently, we have glimpses into what data sharing partnerships might look like, and we are seeing varying models of partnership. For instance, during the 2014 World Cup, the city of Rio de Janeiro purchased data from and shared data with travel apps Waze and Moovit to help with traffic management. The city collected real-time data from pedestrians that used the public transportation app Moovit and drivers that used Waze navigation. And for good reason: Waze offers extremely accurate information on drivers because their app "pings" the GPS location of drivers every second. For now, Waze and local governments share information on users. For other services, local governments are paying. Local governments are paying 80 cents per year for data users of the cycling app Strava.

Second, private enterprises are using open data to build profitable enterprises, which is signaling a change in the data landscape. While the goal of open data is to make data available and useable by the public, we are now seeing instances where that information has enabled incredibly profited applications. For instance, publishes nationwide crime information based on open data provided by policing agencies. In fact, policing agencies actually work with The real estate site Trulia includes crime maps that show potential homebuyers crime patterns in a specific area—all with data powered by sites like Growth in this area will mean that the public sharing of information is done accurately and ethically.

The accuracy of open data has always been a significant challenge for public agencies. Additionally, ethical uses of open data have been a long-standing issue. For instance, Alistair Croll discussed how open data from London was used to develop, what he called, "racial boundary maps." These maps used the most common last name of citizens overlaid on a city map. Visually, the maps provide clear indications of the multicultural landscape of London and could be used for discriminatory purposes.

Third, the private sector understands that they own a lot of data that is of public value, so they are moving to engage in data philanthropy or data sharing programs as a form of corporate responsibility. In 2015, transportation network company Uber announced that they would begin sharing trip information with the city of Boston to assist urban planners in reducing traffic congestion. Uber will provide reports on every trip taken (which will not include riders' personal information). The reports will show the time, date, and zip code of a where riders begin and end their trips. The information is intended to help planners understand traffic patterns and gauge opportunities for other public transportation options.

Satellite company DMC International Image provides invaluable satellite imagery to the public sector for instance of natural disasters and crises (e.g., fires in India and floods in Zimbabwe). In France, telecommunications company France Telecom-Orange made data from five million anonymized mobile phone users data available to the research community through the Data for Development Challenge. Private companies are making good on efforts to share data and we are seeing this become a two-way street between the public and private sector.

Finally, collaboration between the public and private sectors will be necessary to achieve planning goals. Planners will need to become more sophisticated in leveraging these invaluable data sources; especially when data are found that are truly representative of an overall population. For instance, AirSage is a company that owns exclusive rights to location data collected by two major U.S. wireless carriers and can account for the one third of the U.S. population's movement. This information is then sold to intermediaries, who then sell the data to public agencies and other businesses. For instance, such movement data might be matched with census data to help retailers locate new opportunities for store locations or help budget-strapped urban planners use mobility data from private companies instead of installing new sensors on road infrastructure to gauge citizen movement.

To properly manage these trends, planners must become more sophisticated in solving data-ownership and sharing challenges and developing lasting, equitable partnerships. Right now, we don't know what a lasting and equitable partnership for data sharing looks like. Examples and cases from planners will be necessary to understand the pros and cons of undertaking such relationships. In the interim, planners must 1) invest in learning about the changing public data landscape, 2) play an active role in shaping the future of such relationships through engagement and partnership, 3) document and share related experiences, and 4) expand the professional skill set to include data analytical and visualization capabilities.

Kendra L. Smith, Ph.D. is a Post-Doctoral Scholar for Public Service and Community Solutions and a research fellow at the Center for Urban Innovation at Arizona State University. Follow Kendra on Twitter @KendraSmithPhD.

Kevin C. Desouza, Ph.D. is a Professor of Public Affairs and the Associate Dean of Research at the College of Public Service and Community Solutions at Arizona State University. He is also a nonresident senior fellow at the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institute. Follow Kevin on Twitter @KevDesouza.

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