Smile: You’re on camera

‘Smile, you’re on camera’ has long been a famous sardonic caption used to warn people that they are being monitored by CCTV – but what if the camera actually knew, and cared, whether you were smiling? In Vilnius, neuroanalytic cameras are being used to measure residents’ and visitors’ happiness levels and produce a live happiness index for the city. “Of course, it’s not just about happiness in the moment,” explains Egle Radvile, Vilnius’ chief technology officer, “we also take account of education and other points because we are interested more in overall wellbeing.”

Data is collected by six neuroanalytic cameras, including in the old town area, a UNESCO cultural heritage site, where the city is using cultural heritage as a driver for sustainable growth, turning underused cultural heritage into a resource for all. The cameras, installed as part of the European project ‘ROCK‘, measure people’s emotional and psychological states, and also assess the rate and length of visits made to different areas.

According to Egle, the data shows that people are happier in the cultural heritage area than in other parts of the city – good evidence to support further investments in culture.

These neuroanalytic cameras are only a small part of a wider data strategy that the city is pursuing to boost wellbeing, as well as the local economy, while contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals.

Data for placemaking

Vilnius is making a push to revivify its public spaces, including projects to renew Vingriai springs square, the Neris and riverfront, and the Japanese gardens. However, despite the fact that more than one third of the municipal territory is made up of green spaces, attractively refurbished public spaces are still somewhat lacking. As with the Old Town area, the city sees data as key to placemaking across its territory.

One of the advantages of working with data is that you no longer have to take anything on assumption. To demonstrate the value of green spaces for wellbeing, Egle says, the city set up an experiment with IT workers. “First we use different sensors to measure the wellbeing of the IT workers, and then we put them in a special place in the forest outside the city. It is near a big lake. There, they can work remotely for a week.”

Once the week is through, they measure their wellbeing again, and can use the data to demonstrate that green space has a positive effect on workers’ state of mind – as well as their productivity. In this way, the city can demonstrate the value of, and exploit the gains to be made from, the region’s natural heritage.

Do you read me?

As well as measuring individuals, the city is also evaluating its placemaking efforts using ‘opinion analytics,’ which it developed together with Vilnius Gediminas Technical University. “The technology analyses online activity” Egle says.

The city can perform a textual analysis of things like online reviews and social media to assess how people are feeling in certain places. It could even be used to tailor the cultural heritage offer to individual users, personalise the texts they are presented with, and condense information based on the level of detail the user desires.

You’re the king of the castle

One of the clever ways that the city is using this technology to enliven people’s interaction with cultural heritage is to integrate it with the Three Crosses Monument, one of the main symbols of the city.

Now people on the street can use an app to log their mood and they will see the Three Crosses Monument looming over the city change colour according to the mood that they have registered. This is an example of how neuroanalytics can be exploited to create unique user experiences of common heritage sites and cultural programming.

Data makes the link

Data can also be used to lay bare the connections between different policy areas, for example culture and mobility. To improve the sense of place and cultural offer in the city, there are plans to move forward with a lot of pedestrianisation, especially in the old town.

What is the value for the municipality of being an intermediary that stands in between the people and this data?

In Vilnius, as in many cities, pedestrianisation is often initially unpopular with local shop owners. This is because during the necessary road works, and for some time afterwards, owners can expect to see a reduction in revenues. However, the data shows that in the long term, pedestrianisation leads to significant increases in revenue. Gathering this data and showing it to businesses is a good way to reduce resistance to change.

Open data and open innovation

“All these tools and other ones are generating a lot of data” Egle says, and the city knows better than to keep this data to itself. “Our open data policy means that data from the city, and also from the private sector, is available to the public. Anonymised, of course.” This data, according to Egle, is fuel for an enormous amount of local innovation.

Egle gives the example of Trafi, a local startup that got going thanks to the open data policy. “They use the open data to make a programme for mapping of the real-time position of buses, traffic jams, construction sites, and even areas affected by bad weather, so that people who want to travel can choose the best way.”

Trafi has gone from a local to an international operation. The company’s success in Lithuania has led it to work with the cities of Rio de Janeiro and Berlin, as well as companies such as Lyft, Volkswagen and Google. “Right now,” says Egle, “we have over 290 open data projects happening in the city.”

Residents are also empowered as data gatherers, with mobile apps like Tvarkau Miesta, which lets them report issues such as overflowing bins in public spaces. This creates a direct line of communication between the residents of Vilnius and the municipality.

I’ll show you mine, you show me yours

Finally, Egle points beyond the wellbeing and cultural economic stimulus enabled by data collection to a further value: transparency. Opening up data between the city administration and the public strengthens the relationship, and the trust between them.

The data relates to everything in the city, from energy consumption of the kindergartens, to traffic and public transport data, to data generated through theoretical models. The municipality also shares all the information about its finances, public procurement, real estate and public transport.

The inspiration for this move was initially sparked by a practical concern. “We were getting a huge number of public requests for data,” Egle explains, “it was taking a lot of the time and energy of the municipal staff. Then we thought, what is the value for the municipality of being an intermediary that stands in between the people and this data? So we made it all available.”

Generating wealth as well as wellbeing

Since implementing its open data policy, Vilnius has seen some dramatic economic results. The city’s budget has increased from €400 million to nearly €700 million, and the transparency of its allocation has increased too.

Municipal companies have also seen big benefits. Using open data and other good governance practices has increased their output capacities and reduced their costs. The municipal road construction company Grinda, for example, has increased its production rate by 40%, lowering the costs for customers by 20%.

Want a good argument for open data? Just look at the data.

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer