Silicon Valley City Offers Template for Smart City Growth and Privacy

San Jose, CA, is rolling out data-driven programs and services based on community need. In tandem, the city has crafted a digital privacy policy to protect residents’ privacy. Now, San Jose wants to share its policies to promote smart city growth.


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Image credit: Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group

The City of San Jose is a hot spot of technology use and innovation. The city has prioritized the deployment of technology to improve municipal services and the quality of life for its diverse constituency. Its innovative digital revolution has attracted companies that want to apply IoT-based solutions to everyday life, and San Jose wants to share its approach with other cities.

What started several years ago as a policy unit in the mayor’s office has morphed into a bevy of new ideas and programs backed by the Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation (MOTI). “We are driving innovation through public-private partnerships,” says Jordan Sun, former chief innovation officer and currently senior advisor for the city of San Jose. The goal is to build an equitable, sustainable smart city that benefits all its constituents.

San Jose has built a pipeline of partners that can solve real-world problems, from monitoring air quality to fire detection systems to traffic management. MOTI works with city departments on how data can drive economic development, Sun says. Business problems drive innovation, and many of the projects leverage IoT-based data already collected by the city.

Mind the Gap

Part of San Jose’s mission is to close the digital divide. To improve equal access to technology, San Jose established a Digital Inclusion and Broadband Strategy. One key goal is to bring high-speed internet access to low income and elderly citizens. “We streamlined the permitting of 5G to accelerate 5G adoption,” Sun says. Working with telcos and private fundraising, the city has upgraded existing small cells to support 5G.

Other projects include the OneSJ app to help young adults and youth find and access San Jose’s mental health services, improvements to the 311 non-emergency system, and the development of a data equity framework, which uses administrative data collected by the city to analyze constituent needs. This framework enables the equitable distribution of scholarships and access to services, supports small businesses, and promotes employment diversity.

Ethical Innovation

“Data is incredibly useful, and if we use it right, we can really improve [life] for our citizens,'' says Albert Gehami, digital privacy officer for the City of San Jose. With innovation comes responsibility. That led to the development of a citywide Digital Privacy Policy to ensure transparency and to protect citizens as new projects commence. The crux of the policy are the following seven elements:

1. Notify people when data is collected. Let citizens know when and what data is being captured and explain why and how it will be used.

2. Define the data retention period, so people know how long the city will maintain that information. After the retention period—typically two years—the data is deleted or anonymized.

3. Limit the amount of personal data collected when possible.

4. Be accountable for data use and security. If data is compromised, investigate the breach, and inform the citizenry.

 5. Ensure the data is accurate. Use artificial intelligence models with limited bias and be open about the models used. Automated systems should inform human decision-making processes, not replace them.

6. Share data only with trusted partners and vendors, which also must abide by the city’s digital privacy policy.

7. Data should be used to drive decisions that advance equity and improve the community.

All tech projects are subject to this scrutiny. “Privacy approval is required just like it would be for the IT architecture,” Gehami says. “Does the solution benefit outweigh the privacy risk?”

San Jose knows it has tech resources other cities might lack, which is why the city is sharing its work. “Smaller cities can use our digital privacy policies as a template,” Gehami says. “We [all] want to provide services the best way possible, and data can help that.”


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