A few observations about prime minister’s smart cities initiative

Among the presentations made to Prime Minister Narendra Modi as part of his plan to build 100 “smart cities” in India, one was about the vision to build  “a new Chicago every year.” Since I live in Chicago area, I thought it might be useful to weigh in on the subject.

Smart cities are as much about software, as in creating datasets, as they are about humanware, as in creating a major cultural shift in doing things. I hope one of the prime minister’s pet projects does not become merely a bonanza for IT companies to create sophisticated data portals, even though that is the necessary first step. The operative part here is “fist step”. Running a smart city is as much a technological endeavor as it is a human endeavor.

Since Chicago is being held up as an example that India can possibly emulate, let me quickly give you a glimpse of what the city’s data portal offers. From an exhaustive list of the city’s current employee names, their salaries and position titles to the number of potholes patched in the last seven days, from the number of towed vehicles to tree trim requests and from crimes (2001 to present) to street sweeping schedules, this portal offers 857 datasets. That is the information/technology/software part of a smart city. But behind these massive datasets, there lies the equally important part of not having only carried out the services that are promised but an openness to share it with anyone who might want to see it.

Take for instance, now I know that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s salary is $216,210. There is also an executive director in his office called Paras Desai whose salary is $154,992. I may not be able to do anything with this information immediately but it gives me an insight into the pay structure of a city of Chicago’s size. It tells me that there are 32,160 city employees on whom the city spends $2,429,980,941.36 in annual salaries.

When the prime minister goes about creating 100 smart cities in India, which is a laudable non-partisan, non-ideological goal, he will have to bear in mind not just the technology of doing so but the humanware of doing so. It is the humanware which would cause him the most trouble. I have been out of Mumbai for too long to know for sure but I wonder whether there is a portal that can tell me how many potholes were fixed in the city in the past seven days. It is possible that this information exists somewhere but the question is whether it is available with the kind of ease with which I can find it on the Chicago data portal.

It is an immense technological and cultural endeavor to create just one smart city. To create 100 in a country like India would be a staggering challenge. I am glad that the prime minister is at least thinking along those lines.

The existence of such data offers a powerful tool to run local government with unprecedented efficiency. As the number of datasets grows, Chicago is becoming extraordinarily mapped out. One features that worries some people is what is called predictive policing. This is a version of preemptive policing which some believe could be reminiscent of the sci-fi movie ‘Minority Report’.

Predictive policing is all about actually anticipating crime before it might happen by analyzing datasets from portal such as the one in Chicago based on the past behaviors of neighborhoods and individuals. Individuals with a history of crime form a key dataset in predictive policing. That leads to interventionist policing which means intervening before a likely crime is about to happen. This is a controversial aspect among civil liberty groups given its presumptions. Would a smart Indian city allow something like this? For instance, would predictive policing stop the burning down of a movie theater showing a movie that fundamentalists do not approve of and are known to have attacked in the past?

On balance, the idea of a smart city is a remarkable one and is entirely a product of the information and communications technology revolution. Without the convergence of IT, bandwidth and broadband none of this would have been possible. I will keenly watch this particular initiative of Prime Minister Modi because in its success (or failure) lies how India is willing to fundamentally reengineer the core of its culture.


About chutiumsulfate

South Asians can infer from my name what I am. View all posts by chutiumsulfate

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