Ekim Tan

Interview with Ger Baron

Amsterdam Smart City on Interactive City Making Tools

Ger Baron has worked for the Amsterdam Innovation Motor since 2007. He has initiated and is responsible for several projects around Living Labs and Smart City. Currently he is developing the Amsterdam Smart City project.

1. What do you think are the top 5 digital tools for improving the city?

It is difficult because though there are a lot of city tools nowadays, not many of them are really interactive.

Foursquare works well, though it is not made as an interactive city tool, it works in practice because of its scale. There is the possibility to get feedback from people about things without asking them directly.

Tools such as SeeClickFix or Verbeter de buurt help to digitally involve people who are not normally involved in city building. The simplicity of these types of tools are relevant since this makes it easily accessible.

Programs such as Blockee*, a SimCity-like program made to be played in a specific city, was originally made for professionals and urban planners is now being used by children today to play the city.

*Is this this the correct name for the application? Blockee was made for citizens originally, perhaps you meant a different program

There's a solar panel website for mapping used in California. It measures how many meters of space one has on their roof and how they can use it for producing energy. It is interesting but it isn't interactive. It works as a tool that empowers people and stimulates use, which is brilliant.

2. Which one do you use?

I used to use Foursquare, but now I use applications involving mobility and transport on a daily basis. Apps on transport with open data and real-time information, like the TomTom app which gives the users freedom to add data themselves.

Euro Beinat's company the Current City has an app which uses real-time analysis of how the city is used. Through this, patterns of movement through the city can be discovered. This is useful for planning, because it defines different profiles of movement.

3. What is a Smart City?

A Smart City is a city that is based on information that is accessible to people using the city. Meaning based on the information, you make things and processes smarter and more efficient and so on. But in the end it's about giving information to citizens for making decisions. So citizens can start to act based on the information they receive.

From a Smart City perspective, the fact that one can use the data of others to make decisions is meaningful. When you think about it means you should make sure you have open infrastructures, data, connectivity, energy that enables all types of applications not only for the cellphone but for education and healthcare.

4. Which differences do you see about the vision of what a smart city is between local governments and private companies?

It used to be really different but now it's coming more and more together. Companies that come from a business perspective, integrating new infrastructures and being more efficient. While the government also looks for efficiency but it has the obligation of empowering citizens to act.

5. We heard once that data will be the oil of 21st century, what do you think about this?

Absolutely. But that is already happening. When you see how some energy companies are working you realize that they are not obtaining energy anymore, they only have data and are connecting people interested in it.

Democracy will change a lot in next years and is somehow unpredictable. Business models are not working anymore and they have to find new options. The problem is that nowadays we are not aware about how important that information is for us.

We invest a lot of money in asphalt but we don't invest in a guarantee of connectivity for the city of Amsterdam, what would happen in Amsterdam without internet?

6. What 3 things would you to make the city smarter if you were the Mayor of Amsterdam?

Well, my first action would be providing real open data, opening everything the government is doing rather than releasing individual datasets.

Also focus on reforming the education infrastructure, especially in secondary school, where the structure of studying for exams kick out curiosity of the students.

I would start to create partnerships with all types of city organizations on issues such as healthcare and education. So they can join goals and work together to achieve them.

7. Just because it is easier to build participatory public platforms, should we expect citizens to contribute more to city making? And the same from city councils?

Not on a holistic level but more in smaller things. Is pretty difficult to engage people in public issues and the more abstract the problems are the more difficult it becomes.

There's now a big trend to get rid of the stadsdelen [local districts] structure which I think is terrible because I'm not sure if people from city hall have the ability to see whats happening in the whole city. If you don't cycle to the neighborhood everyday you lose feeling with whats happening there. I believe in the local type of communication through a combination of digital and physical means. For the moment, not everyone can be involved, it's always a selective group that is active. It's a balance of getting people who are really interested in the topic to contribute answers.

I used to be very active in the local social-democratic party and when I went door-to-door asking the people their 3 main issues most of their responses were small quotidian problems. It is not easy to learn people's concerns as the workers of city hall do not have the ability to visit all corners of the city.

Maybe there are other agents on the street whose are able to inform about issues on the streets. Even if there is not part of their work, make it a part!

8. What open data should mean to the people? Who should be in charge of translating this data?

With the open data the people will be able to choose. When you don't have any insight you don't have the opportunity to choose. Knowing how much it costs to collect garbage and other information which will allow people to make better decisions.

9. What do you think about hackathons? Do you think the new way to create tools is in a crowdsourced way?

I used to love hackathons but now I am trying to go one step further. It is good to have a lot of people working on developing a project, but in the end they are a small part of the population and very specific. I think the next step is how to bring in not only developers and engineers but also architects, civil servants and others, bring them together on these brainstorm sessions to build a concept together.

We need to involve more citizens in order to make those tools really useful. Otherwise, developers may have a very good idea but most of the times is difficult to develop a really useful tool. For coming editions of hackathons we would like to create an API (Application Programming Interface) because data has to be explained and translated for people by mapping and making meaning out of the data.

10. What is the challenge for Amsterdam Innovation Motor?

I am in the ICT area and our first challenge would be making sure people see that we are doing useful things. Then, I think we have to work on collaborating more. And for the Smart City Program, openness is key; we have to open the data as much as possible.