Stop talking rubbish about smart dustbins

Earlier this week, the City of London bravely ordered Renew, the company that makes London's "smart" dustbins, to stop tracking data from nearby smartphones. 

“Data collection – even if it is anonymised – needs to stop,” the City of London Corporation said in a public statement. 

Everyone loves a good privacy backlash – I've indulged in a fair few myself. But I think this one is a little unfair. 

Firstly, the trial ended two months ago. The City of London presumably knows this, as Renew has been operating with its permission, so its statement is just posturing.  

Secondly, Renew hardly conducted the trials in secret. It issued not one but two press releases about what it was doing, neither of which got any coverage at the time. 

Thirdly, when the BBC reported on the use of anonymised, aggregated mobile phone data to optimise bus routes in the Ivory Coast earlier this year, it was universally lauded as a clever use of "big data". OK, Renew's bins don't have the same public service angle, but advertising is a legitimate business practice, thank God.

It seems to have been a story on US website Quartz that triggered the recent bubble of quasi-critical news coverage. Quartz itself was equivocal, but after the recent revelations about GCHQ and the NSA, we in the press have a ravenous appetite for this particular brand of outrage.

No-one apart from the ever-balanced Big Brother Watch has accused Renew of anything in particular, but the implication of the language is clear. 

I've spoken to Renew's CEO Kaveh and he is a bit bemused by the backlash. The company was experimenting with an innovative way to track the reach of its ads anonymously. The technology, which comes from another London start-up called Presence Orb, had not been tested outdoors. Now it has. The world did not end. 

The solution to public mistrust of data analytics has been articulated time and time again: transparency builds trust. Only today did professional services firm Deloitte make that very point in its Data Nation report. 

But when a company does its best to be transparent, issuing press releases about what it's doing and readily talking to jounalists, only to be implicitly criticised in the headlines, one wonders what else they could do. 

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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