Why smart services need better -not just more- data


In the last decade, an incredible amount of innovative digital services were made available to the consumer, improving their quality of life. Most of these services rely on the ability to collect, store and/or analyze data that was previously unavailable, or with a sufficient quantity to enable acute analysis. This profusion of services, and the development of companies such as Facebook or Google, spread the belief that all data was valuable. In fact, it was not uncommon in recent years to hear people say that ‘Data is the new oil’. While data are crucial to these new services, the assertion turned out to be incorrect: much of the data we extract is useless, and the data we do use are often exploited only once.

Take the example of the ‘wearable’ technology (smart watches, smart glasses, activity trackers, health monitoring devices…): the annual shipments of devices are expected to reach 175 million units by 2020, as opposed to 22 million in 2014. These devices produce a lot of information about the user’s activity -footsteps, heart rare, sometimes even body temperature and blood glucose levels- which are often used by a single app/service. While the app/service in question may indeed help the user live a more healthy life, one may wonder if some of the data collected couldn’t be used by professional health services to make better diagnosis and provide better treatment.

In his latest blog post, Andrus Ansip (European Commission VP in charge of the Digital Single Market) actually addressed the example of healthcare to explain how data could play a more important role in Europe for the end-user than it does today: ‘Take-up of health apps is still limited and the data collected is not yet being regularly incorporated into healthcare and disease prevention. […] For example, a patient’s home health monitor should be able to communicate easily, if required, with a hospital health IT system.’ The data generated by wearables could indeed be very valuable for the user, but the lack (or over-abundance, which has similar consequences) of standards makes them almost useless, as they can hardly be shared between entities and services.

The low interoperability of ICT in healthcare and digital medical records is a recurring issue, but it highlights a disturbing trend regarding Smart City solutions: municipal services are urged to produce more and more data (by manufacturers, big data evangelists, or even services from other cities), instead of higher quality and better structured data. Will other cities, or even other municipal services of the same city, be able to use my data in their own application? Or the other way round, will the municipal service in question be able to use other application on their data? These questions should be answered before starting Smart City projects.

The question of interoperability is targeted by the Digital Single Market strategy of the European Commission, of which one of the objectives is to ‘coordinate digital standards across sectors and to provide full interoperability between systems and devices’. Other initiatives, such as the e-Government Metadata Standard (eGMS) in the UK, aim at defining data structures and terminologies to describe public sector resources, in order to facilitate the exchange of data between public entities.

The matter of the quantity and relevancy of information seems however here to stay: the number of hackathons from cities (and companies) having data they have no use for is still incredibly high, and too many new projects rely on a massive rollout of sensors with only limited use cases for them.