Smart cities and big data: Is there a limit to what we should know?

Big data is playing an ever-increasing role in our daily lives and, as the cost of chip technology falls, cities are starting to gather information from all over the place using data-gathering sensors that can be fitted pretty much anywhere.

This trend is expected to continue and research firm Gartner has estimated that there will be more than 26.5 billion connected devices by 2020, creating a $1.9 trillion (£1.2 trillion) industry.

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There are plenty of examples already out there of cities using big data to become more efficient. Philadelphia, for instance, estimates that it is saving $1 million (around £600,000) every year from fitting rubbish bins with sensors that indicate when the bin is full, thereby reducing the number of collections required.

In London, 500 datasets have been made available on a public website via a city dashboard that shows a range of data such as air pollution, crime statistics and even enables members of the public to track the real-time location of buses.

Furthermore, Glasgow is currently piloting a project where street lights have been programmed to increase in brightness if the noise level in the area rises. The lights are also integrated with monitored CCTV cameras so staff will quickly be able to spot if the rise in noise level is due to a problem or disturbance.

Of course the main issue is that, although applications such as these may be an effective means of reducing crime rates, they also present a serious privacy concern.

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"All the data generated from traffic cameras can be used to help better traffic flow but it can also be used to extract information about where people are parking in places where they shouldn't," explains data scientist professor Nello Cristianni.

"Live maps of people walking about in London could have a variety of uses but has anyone asked them if they wanted to be on that data feed?"

Dr Andrew Hudson-Smith, designer of London's data dashboard, believes tracking people and having the ability to "know where every person is," is simply the next step for smarter cities and a necessary means of increasing safety and efficiency.

He also points out the potential financial gains that this data can provide: "At the moment we are sharing our data blindly, but in a few years' time companies will pay us to share our data. We will realise the value of our data feeds - even down to the value of our heartbeat as we pass Sainsbury's."

So, which side are you on? Should smarter cities be encouraged and developed or are they just a violation of our privacy? Let us know what you think in the comments section.