Centre for Internet & Society
Too Clever By Half: Strengthening India’s Smart Cities Plan with Human Rights Protection

Data-driven urban cities have drawn criticism as the initiative tends to homogenize Indian culture and treat them alike in terms of their political economy, culture, and governance. Photo Credit: Highways Agency, CC BY 2.0/Flickr

The data involved in planning for urbanized and networked cities are currently flawed and politically-inflected. Therefore, we must ensure that basic human rights are not violated in the race to make cities “smart”.

The article was published in the Wire on March 21, 2016

As Indian cities reposition themselves to play a significant role in development due to urban transformation, the government has envisioned building 100 smart cities across the country. Due to the lack of a precise definition as to what exactly constitutes a smart city, the mutual consensus that has evolved is that modern technology will be harnessed, which will lead to smart outcomes.

Here, Big Data and analytics will play a predominant role by the way of cloud, mobile technology and other social technologies that gather data for the purpose of ascertaining and accordingly addressing concerns of people.

Role of Big Data

Leveraging city data and using geographical information systems (GIS) to collect valuable information about stakeholders are some techniques that are commonly used in smart cities to execute emergency systems, creating dynamic parking areas, naming streets, and develop monitoring. Other sources which would harness such data would be from fire alarms, in disaster management situations and energy saving mechanisms, which would sense, communicate, analyze and combine information across platforms to generate data to facilitate decision making and manage services.

According to the Department of Electronics and Information Technology, the government’s plan to develop smart cities in the country could lead to a massive expansion of an IoT (Internet of Things) ecosystem within the country. The revised draft IoT policy aims at developing IoT products in this domain by using Big Data for government decision-making processes. For example, in India a key opportunity that has been identified is with regard to traffic management and congestion. Here, collecting data during peak hours, processing information in real time and using GPS history from mobile phones can give insight into the routes taken and modes of transportation preferred by commuters to deal with traffic woes. The Bengaluru Transport Information System (BTIS) was an early adopter of big data technology which resorted to aggregating data streams from multiple sources to enable planning of travel routes by avoiding traffic congestions, car-pooling, etc.


The idea of a data-driven urban city has drawn criticism as the initiative tends to homogenize Indian culture and change the fabric of cities by treating them alike in terms of their political economy, culture, and governance.

Despite basing the idea of a smart city on the assumption that technology-based solutions and techniques would be a viable solution for city problems in India, it is pertinent to note that the collection of personal real-time data may blur the line between personal data with the large data collected from multiple sources, leaving questions around privacy considerations, use and reuse of such data, especially by companies and businesses involved in providing services in legally and morally grey areas.

Privacy concerns cloud the dependence on big data for functioning of smart cities as it may lead to erosion of privacy in different forms, for example if it is used to carry out surveillance, identification and disclosures without consent, discriminatory inferences, etc.

Apart from right to privacy, a number of rights of an individual like the right to access and security rights would be at risk as it may enable practices of algorithmic social sorting (whether people get a loan, a tenancy, a job, etc.), and anticipatory governance using predictive profiling (wherein data precedes how a person is policed and governed). Dataveillance raises concerns around access and use of data due to increase in digital footprints (data they themselves leave behind) and data shadows (information about them generated by others). Also, the challenges and the realities of getting access to correct and standardized data, and proper communication seem to be a hurdle which still needs to be overcome.

The huge, yet untapped, amount of data available in India requires proper categorization and this makes a robust and reliable data management system prerequisite for realization of the country’s smart city vision. Cooperation between agencies in Indian cities and a holistic technology-based approach like ICT and GT (geospatial technologies) to resolve issues pertaining to wide use of technology is the need of the hour.  The skills to manage, analyze and develop insights for effective policy decisions are still being developed, particularly in the public sector. Recognizing this, Nasscom in India has announced setting up a Centre of Excellence (CoE) to create quality workforce.

Though it is apparent that data will play a considerable role in smart city mission, the peril is lack of planning in terms of policies to govern the big data mechanics and use of data. This calls for development of suitable standards and policies to guide technology providers & administrators to manage and interpret data in a secured environment.

Legal hurdles

The Information Technology (Reasonable Security Practices and Procedures and Sensitive Personal Data or Information) Rules 2011 deals with accountability regarding data security and protection as it applies to ‘body corporates’ and digital data. It defines a ‘body corporate’ as “any company and includes a firm, sole proprietorship or other association of individuals engaged in commercial or professional activities” under the IT Act. Therefore, it can be ascertained that government bodies or individuals collecting and using Big Data for the smart cities in India would be excluded from the scope of these Rules. This highlights the lack of a suitable regulatory framework to take into account potential privacy challenges, which currently seem to be underestimated by our planners and administrators.

Regarding access to open data, though the National Data Sharing and Accessibility Policy 2012 recognizes sensitive data, the term has not been clearly defined under it. However, the Information Technology (Reasonable security practices and procedures and sensitive personal data or information) Rules, 2011 clearly define sensitive personal data or information. Therefore, the open data framework must refer to or adopt a clear definition drawing from section 43A Rules to bring clarity in this regard.

Way forward

As India moves toward a digital transformation, highlighted by flagship programmes like Smart Cities Mission, Digital India and the UID project, data regulation and recognition of use of data will change the nature of the relationship between the state and the individual.  However, this seems to have been overlooked. Policies that regulate the digital environment of the country will intertwine with urban policies due to the smart cities mission. Use of ICTs in the form of IoT and Big Data entails access to open data, bringing another policy area in its ambit which needs consideration. Identification/development of open standards for IoT particularly for interoperability between cross sector data must be looked at.

To address privacy concerns due to the use of big data techniques, nuanced data legislation is required. For a conducive big data and technologically equipped environment, the governments must increase efforts to create awareness about the risks involved and provide assurance about the responsible use of data.

Additionally, a lack of skilled and educated manpower to deal with such data effectively must also be duly considered.

The concept note produced by the government reflects how it visualizes smart cities to be a product of marrying the physical form of cities and its infrastructure to a wider discourse on the use of technology and big data in city governance. This makes the role of big data quite indispensable, making it synonymous with the very notion of a smart city. However, the important issue is to understand that data analytics is only a part of the idea. What is additionally required is effective governance mechanism and political will. Collaboration and co-operation is the glue that will make this idea work. It is important to merge urban development policies with principles of democracy. The data involved in planning for urbanized and networked cities are currently flawed and politically-inflected. Therefore, collective efforts must go into minimizing pernicious effects of the same to ensure the basic human rights are not violated in the race to make cities “smart”.

Vanya Rakesh is Programme Officer, The Centre for Internet & Society (CIS), Bangalore. Elonnai Hickok, Policy Director of CIS, also provided inputs for this story.

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