‘We explore the meaning of digitisation and the use of data for citizens in the smart city’

Interview with Prof. Liesbet van Zoonen, scientific director of the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Centre for BOLD Cities

The Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Centre for BOLD (Big, Open, Linked Data) Cities examines if and how data research can contribute to solving urban issues. The perspective of city residents and public administrators is key to this. The Centre is conducting joint research with Statistics Netherlands (CBS) and the municipalities of Rotterdam and The Hague and also introduced the SHARED values for the smart city: Sustainable, Harmonious, Affective, Relevant, Empowering, Diverse. We talked to Prof. Liesbet van Zoonen, Scientific Director at the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Centre for BOLD Cities.

The Leiden-Delft-Erasmus collaboration focuses on four societal themes: Sustainable Society, Digital Society, Healthy Society and Inclusive Society. Where does the Centre for BOLD Cities fit into this?

Liesbet van Zoonen: ‘As many of these issues also take place in cities, we have a link to all of them. It is possibly the most obvious for the Digital Society theme. Our research is about digitisation and datafication in the city. What sets us apart is that we focus on the perspective of citizens and public administrators. Within our interest in citizen perspectives, we focus on vulnerable citizens and inequalities, which ties us to the theme of Inclusive Society.


Social Glass: understanding cities through social big dataThe Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Centre for BOLD Cities is investigating whether data analysis can be used to gain a better understanding of young people who do not appear in the official records. These are young people who are not in employment, no longer attend school and are not officially registered. As these young people barely appear in the official records, municipalities are unable to provide them with the support they need to fully participate in society, socially, economically and culturally. A central component of the project is the urban social data platform Social Glass, developed by the TU Delft data scientists in the research team. It can be used to combine structured city data with unstructured dynamic data originating from sensors or social media.

Read more about Social Glass

The Leiden-Delft-Erasmus profiling themes effectively reflect wider social developments and social agendas. What developments and themes are important for your centre?

Liesbet van Zoonen: ‘United Nations Development Goal 11 stands for Sustainable Cities and Communities. That is our area of work. We interpret sustainable as referring to permanent solutions, guaranteed and embedded in society. Digitisation and datafication are happening completely off the radar for most people, citizens and civil servants alike. Our research plays a role in raising awareness of the impact of these developments and giving people and civil servants a voice in the debate about what is effective and desirable when it comes to smart cities.’

'The research in our Centre examines the growing influence of digital technologies in cities. The emergence of Uber and Airbnb are visible examples but digital and data technologies also have an invisible presence: many municipalities try to reduce their costs and look for data and digital solutions. They are simultaneously struggling with issues of transparency, privacy and ethics. As we often focus on the position of vulnerable groups in the smart city we also connect to research about social cohesion in the city. There is growing division at a cultural and economic level even though the city can actually be a cohesive factor, especially in view of the diversity of migration backgrounds.’

The smart lamppost
One example of a new ICT application in the public area is the smart lamppost. It is fitted with sensors and cameras in order to record information about people, objects and the surroundings. This has several real and possible benefits, as it enables the municipality to save money on lighting, pass on information about available parking spaces and prevent potential burglaries. But are citizens involved in the design and placement of these lampposts? Do they have a say about the management and use of the resulting data? What, if any, is the democratic legitimacy of such lampposts?

What is the basis on which your centre can now go on to build from the first phase of Leiden-Delft-Erasmus?

Liesbet van Zoonen: ‘We managed to place the Centre for BOLD Cities on the map in a short period of time, by means of various public activities, such as Data Walks in the city and our research game Your Neighbourhood – Your Data.  Our focus on citizens and the importance of data literacy, including among public administrators, remains important to us. Every Leiden-Delft-Erasmus researcher interested in our mission can feel free to approach us. We often get phone calls from companies who wish to do something with data or the smart city and want to explore collaboration. It’s a very wide area. We have therefore defined three programme spearheads in the new strategy:

1: BOLD Cities for citizens and public administrators: The use of data and digital technologies for the benefit of vulnerable citizens in the city

2: BOLD Cities by citizens and public administrators: The improvement of new forms of participation and governance in the city

3: BOLD Cities with citizens and public administrators: The development of urban data literacy and democratic legitimacy

How do you want to grow further as a centre? Can you give some examples of activities envisaged for the next phase of Leiden-Delft-Erasmus? 

Liesbet van Zoonen: ‘We intend to attract more young researchers to conduct joint research as LDE-colleagues. This will help us expand our network in the faculties of the three universities. In addition to a new minor, a combination of modules in the field of data science, social sciences and ethics, we will also be exploring learning pathways within the universities.’

How do you view the relationship with your regional partners?

Liesbet van Zoonen: ‘As citizens are such important stakeholders in our research, we actually talk about a quadruple helix of knowledge institutions, business community, government and citizens. In the period ahead, we intend to expand collaboration with public administrators in the region by means of new research partnerships via the Urban Big Data Knowledge Workshop and the CBS Urban Data Center, closer collaboration with the municipalities linked to the universities (Leiden, Delft, Rotterdam and The Hague) and the province of Zuid-Holland, a series of white papers on the governance of datafication and digitisation within the various systems of public administration and more Data Walks and Data Dialogues.'

‘Besides, our cooperation is not only limited to the region: I am also the coordinator of the Digital Cities & Communities theme in the Digital Society Agenda of the Association of Universities in the Netherlands. This is resulting in a national network with other universities. The same applies to the NWA-ORC ‘Making Smart Cities Shared’ grant application on which we are currently working with several institutes across the country.’

What’s your greatest challenge?

Liesbet van Zoonen: ‘The Centre for BOLD Cities is flourishing, and things quickly take off with a group of energetic people. The key is to maintain that direction and energy while at the same time ensuring the work of the centre becomes embedded within the universities and faculties. We want to ensure that the Centre itself is also a sustainable initiative.’