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.