City Readiness Starts With Data

Who owns it, who can share it, how can privacy be protected? Those are the big questions policymakers need to address.

Night scene of Expo Axis in Shanghai, China.

Cities need to solve the data question to prepare for the disruption that artificial intelligence (AI) is expected to bring. Striking the right balance between openness and privacy holds the key to enabling the public and private sectors to use AI for the common good. That was the big takeaway from the Oliver Wyman Forum panel discussion, “Meeting AI Disruption Head-on in Today’s Cities,” held in January at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

The debate has shifted significantly in the last year. People are increasingly convinced that artificial intelligence will change the nature of work, posing a challenge to many of today’s jobs and potentially worsening income inequality. Yet advances in AI can produce powerful social benefits: a Canadian health platform used it to provide an early warning of the coronavirus outbreak and Chinese authorities are employing AI to track the movement of people and vehicles to control the spread of the disease.

The technology is only as good as the information on which it’s based. That’s why the focus at the 2020 meeting was on the broader issues of data - who owns it, who uses it, and who benefits from it. Those questions are too important to be left up just to private companies, considering the increasingly evident risks of self-regulation.

Europe has taken the lead with its General Data Protection Regulation while a new California law giving individuals similar rights over how their information is used came into effect in January. Panel members saw these efforts as only a first, and possibly even counterproductive, step. Take Singapore’s smart traffic control system. It has improved circulation on streets and highways, but its effectiveness would suffer if drivers could opt out of sharing their vehicles’ data.

Participants also debated whether less privacy, rather than more, could help counter the market power of technology giants. Just imagine how the competitive landscape might change if everyone had access to the same data as the largest tech companies. Already open platforms such as the London Datastore, which makes the city’s information freely available to all comers, are fostering a wide variety of services.

There was consensus on the need for greater transparency surrounding AI itself if cities are to take full advantage of it. As one participant said, would you trust the introduction of self-driving cars if you didn’t know how they had been trained to operate?

Technology disruption promises to intensify, heightening the challenge of balancing openness and privacy. At the Oliver Wyman Forum, we’re committed to helping cities find solutions.