In Barcelona, high-tech data platforms generate demand for old-fashioned community development.

Residents living around Plaça del Sol joke that theirs is the only square where, despite the name, rain is preferable. Rain means fewer people gather to socialise and drink, reducing noise for the flats overlooking the square. Residents know this with considerable precision because they’ve developed a digital platform for measuring noise levels and mobilising action. I was told the joke by Remei, one of the residents who, with her ‘citizen scientist’ neighbours, are challenging assumptions about Big Data and the Smart City.

The Smart City and data sovereignty

The Smart City is an alluring prospect for many city leaders. Even if you haven’t heard of it, you may have already joined in by looking up bus movements on your phone, accessing Council services online or learning about air contamination levels. By inserting sensors across city infrastructures and creating new data sources - including citizens via their mobile devices – Smart City managers can apply Big Data analysis to monitor and anticipate urban phenomena in new ways, and, so the argument goes, efficiently manage urban activity for the benefit of ‘smart citizens’.

Barcelona has been a pioneering Smart City. The Council’s business partners have been installing sensors and opening data platforms for years. Not everyone is comfortable with this technocratic turn. After Ada Colau was elected Mayor on a mandate of democratising the city and putting citizens centre-stage, digital policy has sought to go ‘beyond the Smart City’. Chief Technology Officer Francesca Bria is opening digital platforms to greater citizen participation and oversight. Worried that the city’s knowledge was being ceded to tech vendors, the Council now promotes technological sovereignty.

On the surface, the noise project in Plaça del Sol is an example of such sovereignty. It even features in Council presentations. Look more deeply, however, and it becomes apparent that neighbourhood activists are really appropriating new technologies into the old-fashioned politics of community development.

Community developments

Plaça de Sol has always been a meeting place. But as the neighbourhood of Gràcia has changed, so the intensity and character of socialising in the square has altered. More bars, restaurants, hotels, tourists and youngsters have arrived, and Plaça del Sol’s long-standing position as venue for large, noisy groups drinking late into the night has become more entrenched. For years, resident complaints to the Council fell on deaf ears. For the Council, Gràcia signified an open, welcoming city and leisure economy. Residents I spoke with were proud of their vibrant neighbourhood. But they recalled a more convivial square, with kids playing games and families and friends socialising. Visitors attracted by Gràcia’s atmosphere also contributed to it, but residents in Plaça del Sol felt this had become a nuisance. It is a story familiar to many cities. Much urban politics turns on the negotiation of convivial uses of space.

What made Plaça del Sol stand out can be traced to a group of technology activists who got in touch with residents early in 2017. The activists were seeking participants in their project called Making Sense, which sought to resurrect a struggling ‘Smart Citizen Kit’ for environmental monitoring. The idea was to provide residents with the tools to measure noise levels, compare them with officially permissible levels, and reduce noise in the square. More than 40 neighbours signed up and installed 25 sensors on balconies and inside apartments.

The neighbours had what project coordinator Mara Balestrini from Ideas for Change calls ‘a matter of concern’. The earlier Smart Citizen Kit had begun as a technological solution looking for a problem: a crowd-funded gadget for measuring pollution, whose data users could upload to a web-platform for comparison with information from other users. Early adopters found the technology trickier to install than developers had presumed. Even successful users stopped monitoring because there was little community purpose. A new approach was needed. Noise in Plaça del Sol provided a problem for this technology fix.

Through meetings and workshops residents learnt about noise monitoring, and, importantly, activists learnt how to make technology matter for residents. The noise data they generated, unsurprisingly, exceeded norms recommended by both the World Health Organisation and municipal guidelines. Residents were codifying something already known: their square is very noisy. However, in rendering their experience into data, these citizen scientists could also compare their experience with official noise levels, refer to scientific studies about health impacts, and correlate levels to different activities in the square during the day and night.

The project decided to compare their square with other places in the city. At this point, they discovered the Council’s Sentilo Smart City platform already included a noise monitor in their square. Officials had been monitoring noise but not publicising the open data. Presented with citizen data, officials initially challenged the competence of resident monitoring, even though official data confirmed a noise problem. But as Rosa, one of the residents, said to me, “This is my data. They cannot deny it”.

Thick data

Residents were learning that data is rarely neutral. The kinds of data gathered, the methods used, how it gets interpreted, what gets overlooked, the context in which it is generated, and by whom, and what to do as a result, are all choices that shape the facts of a matter. For experts building Big Data city platforms, one sensor in one square is simply a data point. On the other side of that point, however, are residents connecting that data to life in all its richness in their square. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz argued many years ago that situations can only be made meaningful through ‘thick description’. Applied to the Smart City, this means data cannot really be explained and used without understanding the contexts in which it arises and gets used. Data can only mobilise people and change things when it becomes thick with social meaning.

Noise data in Plaça del Sol was becoming thick with social meaning. Collective data gathering proved more potent than decibel levels alone: it was simultaneously mobilising people into changing the situation. Noise was no longer an individual problem, but a collective issue. And it was no longer just noise. The data project arose through face-to-face meetings in a physical workshop space. Importantly, this meant that neighbours got to know one another better, and had reasons for discussing life in the square when they bumped into one another.

Attention turned to solutions. A citizen assembly convened in the square one weekend publicised the campaign and discuss ideas with passers-by. Some people wanted the local police to impose fines on noisy drinkers, whereas others were wary of heavy-handed approaches. Some suggested installing a children’s playground. Architects helped locals examine material changes that could dampen sound.

The Council response has been cautious. New flowerbeds along one side of the square remove steps where groups used to sit and drink. Banners and community police officers remind people to respect the neighbourhood. The Council recently announced plans for a movable playground (whose occupation of the centre of the square can be removed for events, like the Festa Major de Gràcia). Residents will be able to monitor how these interventions change noise in the square. Their demands confront an established leisure economy. As local councillor Robert Soro explained to me, convivial uses have also to address the interests of bar owners, public space managers, tourism, commerce, and others. Beyond economic issues are questions of rights to public space, young peoples’ needs to socialise, neighbouring squares worried about displaced activity, the Council’s vision for Gràcia, and of course, the residents suffering the noise.

The politics beneath Smart City platforms

For the Council, technology activists, and residents of Plaça del Sol, data alone cannot solve their issues. Data cannot transcend the lively and contradictory social worlds that it measures. If data is to act then it needs ultimately to be brought back into those generative social contexts - which, as Jordi Giró at the Catalan Confederation of Neighbourhood Associations reminds us, means cultivating people skills and political capacity. Going beyond the Smart City demands something its technocratic efficiency is supposed to make redundant: investment in old-fashioned, street-level skills in community development. Technology vendors cannot sell such skills. They are cultivated through the kinds of community activism that first brought Ada Colau to prominence, and eventually into office.

Adrian Smith, The Guardian, April 18th 2018