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Citizen Technologists

Amsterdam wants its next data projects to be driven by citizens.

Amsterdam is well known for its many smart city projects involving intelligent grids and electric vehicles. But now there is a push to put more of the onus for change on the residents themselves. One of the newest projects is called Citizen Data Lab; the idea is that Amsterdam residents will collect data to measure air quality, traffic, or trash on the street. The lab’s goal is to help “shift from smart cities to smart citizens,” explains Sabine ­Niederer, director of CREATE-IT, a research department at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences that will house the new lab.

The lab is already collecting data about one of the city’s main thoroughfares, Wibautstraat, a once-picturesque boulevard lined by universities, newspaper offices, and cultural organizations. Locals now call it the ugliest street in the city. But Wibautstraat has an abundance of new apartment buildings and nightlife. Air quality concerns, combined with its technology-savvy residents, make it a useful test bed for research.

In June, Niederer and her fellow researchers hosted a “data day” on the Wibautstraat to generate measurements about the city, to be saved as open data sets that anyone can download and use. Using smartphones, the group measured traffic, the number of people on phones, wheelchair obstacles, full trash bins, and the locations where people smoke. The hope is that the data will become the basis for new apps or visualizations that could help researchers develop useful new technologies or motivate citizens to push for change in city management. One planned app would let citizens collect data about the health resources in their neighborhoods and the activities of residents. From this data, it is hoped, a picture of the city will emerge that can help policy makers, citizens, and others visualize which areas are health-care-deprived and which have ample resources.

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These efforts build on sensing apps that CREATE-IT is already developing. One works with sensors installed on bike racks to help people find a place to park their bikes, a daily problem in a city where 75 percent of people own one. Another works with sensors in the Van Gogh Museum to help visitors plan their day, and to help the museum understand how people move thorough the building.

Not far from this stretch of Wibautstraat is the Waag Society, an organization that also aims to put technology in the hands of citizens. Earlier this year the organization handed out 70 sensor kits capable of measuring aspects of air quality, including carbon and nitrogen dioxide concentrations, temperature, noise, light, and humidity. The original intent was to collect data that local health institutions could use. But that goal proved elusive. The inexpensive sensors, chosen for their adherence to open data standards, were not accurate enough to generate data for scientific use. Although the project did not satisfy its original mission, it provided plenty of valuable insight for future projects, says Frank Kresin, the Waag Society’s research director. Kresin says a bigger follow-up project in the works will invite several companies to contribute their sensors to an ecosystem measuring air-quality levels and possibly other metrics like ground movements. An organization will test for accuracy before the sensors are deployed.

Citizen data projects in Amsterdam are still in experimental phases, but they build on a history of more than 50 smart city projects launched in Amsterdam since 2009, including car-sharing services, innovative ways of storing excess solar power, and experimental systems that heat buildings using stored heat from sewers and cool them using drinking water before it is purified. The city works with international corporations like IBM, Accenture, Cisco, Philips, Siemens, and Ikea on many of these initiatives; its focus has been on creating markets for local businesses and getting citizens involved.

“We don’t have one vendor who owns everything and decides who can join and who cannot,” says Ger Baron, who was appointed Amsterdam’s first chief technology officer in March 2014. “Now everybody can join and develop.”

Amsterdam’s goal is not just to install the latest infrastructure or collect data, says Baron. It’s to create products and services for citizens that will be useful to them. Rather than create a long-term technology road map, Baron hopes smaller businesses will launch new ideas.

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