What's the Quid Pro Quo in Dublin's Link-Up with Mastercard?

Jamie Cudden points out graphs in the latest issue of the Dublin Economic Monitor.

They are line charts of spending in the city, broken down into entertainment, necessities and discretionary. Bar charts show how much tourists spend, broken down by the nationalities of the biggest spenders.

All of this information is provided by Mastercard, says Jamie Cudden, Smart City lead for Dublin City Council.

“As we were doing our first couple of Monitors, we decided to make contact with Mastercard,” says Cudden, flicking through the brochure in the Smart Dublin offices at Custom House Quay. Thus, SpendingPulse came about: an indicator of consumer spending in the city.

Part of Smart Dublin’s remit is to identify “challenges” that local authorities face and engage with the private sector to test new technologies to solve them.

One challenge was getting accurate spending data, precise information about spending patterns in the city, he says.

The collaboration with Mastercard has since expanded. These days, the council and Mastercard are also testing new products like City Insights, which shows detailed spending patterns in different parts of the city each day.

But there are many risks when taking a data-driven approach to city management, says UCD School of Geography’s Dr Aoife Delaney, a former researcher with The Programmable City in Maynooth University.

“It changes the fabric of the city. It changes the governance of the city. It’s very much an entrepreneurial turn in how the city is framed and the city is operated,” says Delaney.

“Because all of a sudden you go from local councils being able to figure out their own budget and what needs to be done in their own areas to then relying on a corporation based in San Francisco to tell them what’s going on in their own city,” says Delaney.

“It’s not something I’d be happy with,” says Robert O’Sullivan, on a cold morning on Henry Street, on the hunt for a cowboy suit for his grandson’s birthday. “Where’s it going to stop?”

Mastercard haven’t yet responded to queries about the collaboration.

Smart City

A lot of resources are put into solving city problems, says Cudden. “If technology can help with that, it’s a massive bonus.”

As an example, problems that could be solved with smart technology include enforcing bus lanes, says Cudden. Cameras could automatically fine people who drive in bus lanes, saving Garda resources, he says.

Smart Dublin asks civil servants in different departments and councils what challenges they’re facing, then goes to the tech industry for help to deal with them, says Prof. Rob Kitchin, principal investigator at Maynooth University’s Programmable City project.

This can help the council – and it can also help the companies. “What they’re trying to do is to enable companies to test technologies that aren’t yet mature,” says Kitchin. “It’s being developed in a lab, but they need to test it in the real world before they try to roll it out somewhere else.”

So it is with Smart Dublin’s collaboration with Mastercard. Along with SpendingPulse, Smart Dublin has collaborated with Mastercard since November 2018 on that company’s global City Possible programme.

City Possible

City Possible is Mastercard bringing together different cities to understand what local authorities want to know, and connecting them with private companies who can respond and build products in turn.

According to the City Possible website, it “is a new public-private partnership model focused on meeting the needs of people in cities”.

For two years, Smart Dublin has worked with Mastercard and this network of cities. One tool that has emerged out of the City Possible initiative is called City Insights. Smart Dublin, along with other cities in the network, have been giving feedback on City Insights in order to refine it into a product.

It’s a tool that helps local authorities assess how planned and unplanned events impact the local economy, says Nicola Graham, smart city operations manager with Smart Dublin.

Through the City Insights tool, the city government has access to information on how much people spend in different neighbourhoods on different days. It can get a better picture of how specific events such as St Patrick’s Day or the upcoming Euro 2020 matches in Dublin affect the retail sector, says Graham.

What’s the value of such information for the city?

It’s about decision-making, says Graham. She gives an example of how information gleaned from City Insights could show the effect of pedestrianisation of streets on local business. This could then be used to show local businesses how prospective policy changes might affect them, says Graham.

The data could potentially be used in the future to show the success or failure of policy decisions such as the creation of strategic development zones (SDZs), says Graham. But it would need to be combined with other data sets, she says, in order to get a wider picture.

At the moment, Smart Dublin doesn’t pay to use the City Insights tool. It’s free for three years, as part of the collaboration. But is the city aiding in developing products that it will then need to fork out for in the future?

Graham expects that the cities in the City Possible network will have a certain amount of access to the tool, or some basic version of it. “But it’s not set in stone. There’s a conversation happening,” she says.

Who Will Profit?

Delaney, of UCD’s School of Geography, says that more questions should be asked about Mastercard’s objectives in collaborating with the city.

“You always have to bear in mind that these companies are profit-driven and they have their own goals in the end,” she says.

“If Mastercard decide that they want to get every single person to have a Mastercard – which is obviously their goal, as it’s a credit card – and they get money from that, then the best way to do that is to collaborate with the city and get rid of the Leap Card,” she says.

This might sound great for people living in Dublin, says Delaney, but who is actually profiting in the end?

“And while they’re profiting, they’re collecting the data so they’ll know everything about your life. How you travel from your house to work, what you do for pleasure, work, eat. There is nothing that is going to be left secret,” says Delaney.

According to a press release from Smart Dublin’s website from 2017, “Mastercard will work to engage with Dublin startups to come up with new innovations to promote a cashless society while also developing new innovations in using the city’s data.”

However, such innovations in a cashless society haven’t gone anywhere, says Cudden. “On that side we didn’t do anything.”

The Dangers of Data

There is an innate tension between what private companies want from public data sets and what local authorities want, says Kitchin, the professor at Maynooth University.

For the city council, the data is mainly used to work out how to manage resources, says Kitchin. “It’s operational. It’s about becoming more efficient, like emptying the bins.”

It’s different for private companies, says Kitchin. “They will use it to socially sort people, so to make decisions like who is a valued customer, who are you going to offer rewards or penalties to.”

“It can feed into dynamic pricing, it can feed into red-lining, who is getting the apartment, who gets to live where, who goes to what schools, all this kind of stuff,” he says.

Kitchin has worked with the Smart Dublin team and written reports on data protection for them in the past. They’re taking data protection seriously in their projects, he says.

“They do do data evaluation on their projects in relation to GDPR and how the data is used and so on,” says Kitchin.

Graham, Smart Dublin’s operation manager, says that all Mastercard data is collected anonymously from the moment the card is used, before it’s aggregated.

Delaney says that there can be an issue here, as the aggregated data is an interpretation of the raw data that Mastercard provides.

“It’s not going to be the raw data that Dublin City Council can then really analyse themselves. Really in the long run it gives insights. That’s the point,” says Delaney.

Data Protection

Smart Dublin takes data privacy seriously and is working with Kitchin at Maynooth University on developing concepts of data ethics and an ethical impact-assessment on data use, says Aisling Lennon, programme manager with Smart Dublin.

Last year, Smart Dublin also launched an internal workstream called Digital Rights, says Lennon. It looks at the areas of data compliance with companies that they work with, ethics of data use, as well as engagement with citizens on the work of Smart Dublin.

“We’re doing a lot of work in trying to embed better practices as there’s very legitimate concerns around the speed by which technology is moving,” says Lennon, “but we are making efforts to be conscious of those questions that people are asking.”

Elizabeth Farries, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties’ (ICCL’s) information-rights manager, says questions should be asked about whether data-driven decision-making is the right approach to city management.

“I would say that Smart Cities like Smart Dublin are targeted by profit-driven companies using smart tech to promise different efficiencies for the city,” says Farries. Those efficiencies can instead embed risks into the city, without providing the efficiencies promised, she says.

Risks include the security of the data collected by smart technology, the harvesting of the data, its aggregation and possible reselling to data brokers, says Farries.

“No data set can be 100 percent secure,” says Farries. There can be issues with data sets being combined in ways that can identify different people or groups even if they are anonymised, she says.

Farries compares the anonymised data produced by individuals to tiny tiles in a much larger mosaic. Those who can access more and more tiles can see the larger picture.

When data sets are combined, more can be seen and engineered to further suit an agenda or reinforce discriminations that already exist, says Farries.

“People don’t consent knowledgeably or don’t consent at all,” says Farries, with regard to how their data is being used.

“It can be really hard to protect that data as there’s no secure 100 percent way to protect that data,” says Farries. “That’s why we have to ask ourselves: is the data extraction worth it?”

Sign up here to get our free Dublin Inquirer email newsletter each Wednesday, with headlines from the week’s online edition, updates from inside the newsroom, and more. It’s a little reminder when we have a new edition out, and a way for you to stay in touch with what we’re up to.

Sign up to get our free Dublin Inquirer email newsletter each Wednesday, with headlines from the week’s online edition, updates from inside the newsroom, and more. It’s a little reminder when we have a new edition out, and a way for you to stay in touch with what we’re up to.

Filed under:

Author:

Sean Finnan: Sean Finnan is a freelance journalist. You can reach him at [email protected]

Reader responses

Log in to write a response.

Understand your city

We do in-depth, shoe-leather reporting about the issues that shape Dublin. We're not funded by advertisers. We're funded by readers like you.

We use first-party cookies to allow visitors to log in to our website and read our articles.