From concept to reality: How identity data will power the cities of the future


Today 54 per cent of people live in urban areas. According to the UN, over 66 per cent of the world’s population will be concentrated in cities by 2050, placing a growing importance of the role of the City in society. Combined with the overall population growth, urbanisation will add another 2.5 billion people to cities over the next three decades.

Creating and maintaining the infrastructure that powers a city, from public transport to energy and telecommunications, is already a monumental task. But the challenges will become harder as more cities grow from hundreds of thousands to millions of people.

With this in mind, identity data is deemed to be instrumental in revolutionising the infrastructure of our future cities, supporting citizens as their demands continue to evolve and helping environmental, social and economic sustainability keep pace with the rapid expansion of urban areas.

Recent reports about the UK police forces using advanced facial recognition technology for crowd monitoring at major public events, have raised concerns over the significantly increased capabilities to intrude upon the privacy of citizens. Society continues to grapple with finding the balance between harnessing data to improve the quality of life in cities while respecting individuals’ rights.

Making cities smarter

Around the world, governments are making cities “smarter” by using data and digital technologies to build more efficient and sustainable urban environments. With the number of urban dwellers growing and infrastructure under strain, smart cities will be better positioned to manage rapid change.

Smart cities can manage traffic flows by linking connected cars, traffic light systems and weather alerts, directing people in real time away from congested areas. Technology like the Internet of Things (IoT), and its promise of billions of connected devices, provide an opportunity to revolutionise our cities’ infrastructure and make them truly “smart”. According to Gartner, by 2020 there will be around 26bn devices worldwide that are capable of these kinds of machine-to-machine (M2M) communications.

Pairing the data from these devices with a city’s physical infrastructure and services could significantly cut costs and improve sustainability. Power, water and even broadband consumption can be monitored and managed in real time, diverting resources to where they are needed, scaling up and down as required, for real cost efficiencies and greener energy use with help from the IoT.

The means to power all these advances lies in connected devices that can communicate with each other. But in order to communicate, devices need unique digital identities of their own, and digital identity management technology so that they can securely recognise each other, share relevant data and create relationships between people and devices.

The question remains how much data these devices should transmit and how identifiable a device should be. For citizens to consent to share their data, they must understand what’s in it for them.

How much data is too much data?

“It’s very important that these technologies don’t run ahead of public consent,” says Dr Jonathan Bright, a Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute who specialises in computational approaches to the social and political sciences.

He points out that in the UK, the idea of a centralised government-run identity database – the failed Identity Card scheme – proved to be extremely controversial. So, in the case of your car’s identity, for example, the depth of data that needs to be shareable has to be carefully thought out.

Right now, traffic is managed rather crudely. It’s very easy to establish how much traffic is on a particular road, but difficult to figure out where it has come from or where it’s going unless you start pulling people over for a traffic survey, something which is both disruptive and time-consuming.

A connected car could hold data such as home address and work addresses to identify its most travelled-to locations, or it could go further and upload its entire GPS system data to show everywhere it has been, or even further, delivering GPS data in real time, along with your name, your address, your work address, how much petrol you have and more.

Less is more

For the purposes of city planning and traffic flow, even just a mile radius for your home and work address would be extremely helpful in managing rush hour traffic and offering advice on the best route. It could even go further and help city planners to decide whether the location for a new office building is a good idea, based on the number of employees driving, or taking the train or the bus, and their residences.

Another area ripe for innovation is the development of technologies that improve public health by identifying demographic groups with elevated risk profiles and providing tailored health services to them.

“The question is what data do you need to manage identity? It’s hard to say what people will be comfortable with because it’s a complicated thing to explain to someone who is not an expert. It won’t be intuitive that things can be divided up, as in the example of the car. I certainly think that the idea of starting from the default position of limiting what’s required is a good one,” says Bright.

Figuring out the level of privacy people are comfortable with is challenging. If you ask people directly in a survey what they think about personal data, they usually respond highly protectively. But in practice, people are often willing to give out their name, email address and even phone number in return for nothing more than a money-off coupon for their favourite shop.

Private vs public

For more people to consent to share their data, they must understand it as a value exchange: what is the return for them? “People are aware that their information will be used in different ways by companies, but the biggest use is targeted advertising and I think people largely put up with that,” says Bright.

Today’s consumers are starting to have a more sophisticated sense of the value of their personal data. They’re often willing to share it with a company where there’s a clear benefit to them, whether that is discounts, special offers or more personalised services. However, where there’s less perceived benefit to them, they’re more likely to be wary.

Furthermore, citizens want to have a certain amount of control over the outcomes of sharing their personal data and they also want a reasonable return. People are tired of being monetised without receiving value, and both the private and public sector need to be alive to that fact. So, if smart city planners could show that sharing certain information would lead to energy bill reductions, for example, or vastly improved traffic flows, people may be incentivised enough to release their data.

While mastering the use of identity data can transform our cities’ position in the digital economy, security, privacy and control of that data will be even more complex and important to control. The potential for misuse of data and data breaches is even higher and organisations must understand the increased responsibility they have.

But even more importantly, the cities of the future will need to give citizens the opportunity to share their data in a trustful and consent-based way. That means collecting, tracking and using identity data with full transparency and agreement from all parties.

Gareth Stephens, Group Head of Product, GBG
Image Credit: Jamesteohart / Shutterstock