IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Boston Joins Project to Grow Transparency Around Urban Tech

Many residents have no idea what sort of data is collected by the myriad sensors, cameras and other pieces of smart city technology. A new project hopes to demystify the technology through embedded QR codes.

People on the streets of downtown Boston.
The urban landscape is awash in sensors, cameras and other smart city devices gathering data. A project unfolding in several cities is taking steps to advance transparency around this sort of urban technology.

Helpful Places, a startup with a mission to increase transparency and communication related to urban tech, has launched the Digital Trust for Places and Routines (DTPR) project, described as an “open source communication standard” for cities to adopt.

Four cities — Boston; Washington, D.C.; Innisfil, a small Canadian city near Toronto; and the Angers-Loire metropolitan region in France — will participate in a monthslong study as they install signage on urban tech devices to better inform the community about the nature of the technology and why it’s there.

“Our goal is to help demystify and make it really easy to find out about the use of these technologies, by bringing notice of the use of this tech to where people are — through signage, as they go about their day, without tons of text or having to go look for the information online,” said Jackie Lu, president and co-founder of Helpful Places.

In Boston, the signage will largely take the form of a QR code, which when scanned, calls up information about the device, the data it’s collecting and how to provide feedback.

“The icons let people know what data the technology is collecting, what the data is being used for, what city departments are involved in the project and who has access to the data,” explained Yo Deshpande, technologist for the public realm in the Boston Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics. “And we also let people share their feedback, directly, about the technology, about the project."

“What we really like about it is it’s a way of making the kind of data collection that’s normally invisible, visible,” Deshpande added.

The hope, said Helpful Places officials, is the project will lead to a more comprehensive set of best practices for cities to follow as they deploy an increasing number of data-collecting technology into the public space.

“Municipalities increasingly include ‘transparency’ and ‘citizen engagement’ as core to their smart city strategies,” Lu pointed out. “However, a clear gap remains between policy and implementation.”

“DTPR aims to fill that gap,” Lu added.

Boston has been working with Helpful Places since 2020 when the city began deploying signage on traffic study areas across numerous neighborhoods. Officials now plan to add signage to air-quality sensors, which monitor particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide. The sensors do not include cameras, or collect personally identifiable information. However, it’s not conceivable that the average person walking by would ever know this.

“If it’s an area that’s historically has been overly surveilled … of course the reaction is going to be, ‘that’s a camera and they’re recording, and it’s connected to enforcement,’” said Deshpande. “So we’re really excited about the opportunities to have signage on these sort of things, and have signage that enables conversation.”

Transparency and the accountability that comes with it, is not enough said Deshpande. The goal in Boston is to give the public the agency to develop a trusting relationship with the city.

“We want it to be a back and forth where we can listen to people,” said Deshpande. “We want everybody in Boston to have a sense of ownership around city technology.”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.