Urban Transformation

3 ways cities can improve digital trust in public spaces

The city of Boston is trying to improve public trust by adopting DTPR, an open-source communication standard for digital technologies in shared spaces.

The city of Boston is trying to improve public trust by adopting DTPR, an open-source communication standard for digital technologies in shared spaces. Image: City of Boston

Jacqueline Lu
President and Co-Founder, Helpful Places
Adrienne Schmoeker
City Engagement Strategist and Advisor, Helpful Places
Anu Devi
Project Lead, Urban Transformation, World Economic Forum
Nicolas Jeambon
Community Specialist, Urban Transformation, World Economic Forum
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  • Governments are increasingly purchasing internet-connected technologies for public spaces to improve parking, streetlights, safety and other public services.
  • But public trust in smart technology is crucial for successfully designing, managing and maintaining public assets, infrastructure and spaces.
  • One mechanism for trust-building is the adoption of practices such as Digital Trust for Places and Routines (DTPR) that can increase public understanding of urban technologies.

Are you ready for a world where every pylon, bench and segment of sidewalk has a terms of service and privacy policy?

Bryan Boyer, Director of the Urban Technology Program at the University of Michigan

Four communities are taking steps to improve public trust through transparency. The Angers-Loire metropolitan region in France, the town of Innisfil in Canada, and the cities of Boston and Washington, DC in the US are adopting and testing DTPR – an open-source communication standard for digital technologies in shared spaces. This can create a path to build and maintain public trust in our institutions, whilst harnessing digital technologies’ potential to address civic challenges.

Supported by the World Economic Forum’s Future of the Connected World Global Action Plan, DTPR is an initiative that allows the public to understand and interact with smart technologies installed in their cities. At its heart is a taxonomy of digital technologies, a set of visual icons providing visibility and awareness of the technologies installed, and a mechanism for public feedback.

Have you read?

Through the tools provided by DTPR, the public can learn how smart technologies in the public spaces of cities work and become informed on what types of data are collected and used. DTPR enables anyone moving through a public space that has data-collecting technology to send questions and comments to the “place manager” responsible for it.

Findings from user research and pilots conducted for DTPR point to three important ways for local governments – the stewards of many public spaces – to build public trust when implementing new technologies.

1. Provide a public, legible explanation of city technologies and their data footprints

Municipalities increasingly include “transparency” and “citizen engagement” as core to their smart city strategies. However, a clear gap remains between policy and implementation. They are missing ready-to-use methodologies and toolsets that increase the legibility of these technologies – rendering transparency unattainable, and residents unable to meaningfully engage in dialogue about public infrastructure.

In 2020, the city of Boston placed sensors from Numina supported by the DTPR system at three intersections for four weeks to measure street usage by various modes of mobility, including pedestrians, bikes and vehicles. More than 100 people engaged with the DTPR-powered physical signage installations to understand the purpose of the installed technology. This is part of Boston’s efforts to advance its goal of ensuring that data collection in the public realm inspires resident trust, engagement and satisfaction.

While Boston and cities like it increasingly rely on new technologies and datasets to function and thrive, they and their partners must also take responsibility for promoting a shift in cultural awareness around technology, data and related challenges. This means investing in engaging communication tools and public processes.

Nayeli Rodriguez, Program Director, City of Boston Office of New Urban Mechanics

2. Enable public input on city technologies

Ideally, cities will seek public input on technology before it is procured and proactively engage communities as technology installations are being considered. The reaction of a community to such installations may also depend on the type of technology. Surveillance technology can create a rift between communities, businesses and governments. This in turn can potentially damage public trust and lead to the removal or damage of technologies that were intended for public safety.

In the absence of transparency and a path for continuous public engagement, communities will make assumptions about the intention behind technology installations in their neighbourhoods. One example is a recent citizen science initiative in New York City led by Amnesty International to locate facial recognition technology. If local governments don’t proactively disclose details about technology they’ve implemented and the data it collects, residents will find ways to learn about what is happening in their city on their own terms.

An essential part of a DTPR installation is the ability to collect feedback from individuals about the technology installation – enabling the beginnings of a two-way discussion.

DTPR enables the beginnings of a two-way conversation with those impacted by urban technology.
DTPR enables the beginnings of a two-way conversation with those impacted by urban technology. Image: Helpful Places

3. Measure and evaluate the effectiveness of city technologies

Public technology installations need to measure the effectiveness of implemented solutions and the public sentiment regarding their use. Technologies should not be installed in cities without clearly considering and articulating the desired outcomes of their use, and how those might be measured.

When smart city projects do use metrics, they often have a limited technology- or sector-specific focus, neglecting community benefits and impacts. Without proper data, metrics and input, cities will have trouble managing and maintaining trust in the use of these technologies over time.

DTPR aims to increase citizens' understanding of technology used in public spaces.
DTPR aims to increase citizens' understanding of technology used in public spaces. Image: Helpful Places

DTPR was co-designed and tested by people from a diversity of backgrounds and lived experiences, along with technology, privacy, smart city and public realm experts. The design process aimed to increase transparency for embedded technology systems, with legibility as a necessary precondition to help increase public understanding of technology and encourage participation.

While sharing information that is meaningful and easy to understand is key, accountability is another key component of the pillar of trust. Residents want to know about the specific benefits and risks associated with technologies in their community, along with who is responsible for their implementation and ongoing management. Having such information at hand can give agency to citizens, and thus, underpin trust in the technology, the place manager, and the technology’s utility to the community.


What is the World Economic Forum doing to ensure smart cities?

Local governments provide essential services to the public and many vulnerable communities. It is crucial that “trust enablement” is built in as a metric for success in public technology implementations; our hope is that these steps provide a helpful checklist.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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