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Singapore’s ‘city brain’ project is groundbreaking -- but what about privacy?

Matt Hamblen | Dec. 13, 2016
Aggregating data on traffic, weather, government and elder services aims to make citizens' lives better -- but potentially less private

Elder services and education

A city brain could also be used to coordinate results from a variety of pilot smart city projects. For example, Changi General Hospital in Singapore has a technology research branch that is testing the use of sensors in homes of elderly people. These sensors can tell how often doors open or close, how often a toilet is used, or even detect a loud sound, should someone fall or yell out.

Sensors in homes of the elderly alert only a doctor or a loved one at a remote location about an elderly person's condition. Officials said the alerts will not be added to a person's official electronic medical record, which include only entries made by a doctor.

But conceivably a city brain could aggregate anonymous data from the alerts to better detect patterns affecting health among the aging population. For example, if the alerts found that falls by the elderly were correlated with certain housing units, it could point to a fault with interior design or lighting or carpets. Or it might help detect a pattern for how a virus affecting patients' balance had spread.

That's not to say that real-time information wouldn't be as valuable, if not more so, Singaporean health officials say. If several people in the same apartment building collapsed at the same time, first responders would know to look for smoke or another immediate hazard.

Computerworld's Smart Cities video tour - Singapore [December 2016] 

Singapore students learn coding and other tech skills at a very young age. Here, preschool students learn sequencing with the help of a robotic toy. 

On the other end of the spectrum, technology takes center stage in educating even the youngest Singaporean students. Preschools use robotic toys to introduce the concept of sequencing, a key building block in learning how to code. By the time they are 8 years old, many students are already working with junior programming languages and collaborating in groups to solve problems related to climate change and resource scarcity, prime considerations in Singapore.

Privacy of data is a priority

The example of sensors used in elderly housing has already set off concerns about data privacy and personal privacy -- issues facing every city that keeps information on citizens. Singapore passed a data privacy protection act nearly two years ago, which is considered fairly strict by privacy experts and could be a model for other cities. Municipalities as far away as Kansas City, Mo., are contemplating similar legislation.

One particular privacy worry is that cities will begin using video surveillance in outdoor areas. The goal is to track offensive behavior or illegal activities like car break-ins, but law-abiding bystanders are monitored as well. While residents in some cities like Atlanta have spoken out in favor of more video surveillance to help out in crime-ridden neighborhoods, privacy advocates have raised alarms in places like the City of London, which is heavily outfitted with video surveillance.


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