Bridgewater Smart City Challenge Prize: Privacy Implications

by Sara Bannerman

By Serguei Tabatchenko, CIPPIC Intern

What is the plan?

Bridgewater’s application video depicts a small, rural town in Nova Scotia with a growing need for clean, reliable and affordable energy for a population burdened with energy poverty. According to Bridgewater’s Application for a “Energy Poverty Reduction Program”, currently, 38% of Bridgewater households cannot afford basic energy and transportation costs (p 4). The city plans to use its smart city grant to reduce energy poverty in its community by 20% by 2025. Specifically, this would mean helping 350 households out of energy poverty by the 2024-2025 fiscal year (p 6). If successful, Bridgewater will be on track to have a green and self-supportive economy powered by clean energy systems by 2050 (p 7).

The city’s proposed Energy Poverty Reduction Program will use data and connected technology to create energy savings and financial returns for property owners. Furthermore, the program will provide access to community support for citizens experiencing energy poverty and extensive investment in energy efficiency solutions. Bridgewater wants to make this program a template that can be used by other rural communities experiencing similar problems. It will be interesting to see whether Bridgewater can successfully push for energy solutions for neglected populations despite being a small municipality.

What is the tech? What are the privacy concerns?

    The Energy Poverty Reduction Program will be implemented through five interlocking programs. The first is the Coordinated Access System (CAS), an intake process that identifies at-risk households using a standard assessment tool, such as the Vulnerability Index Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool (VI-SPDAT) (p 10). Bridgewater proposes to use the nationally-accessible Homeless Individuals and Families Information System (HIFIS) as the core data platform, as it is hosted by Employment and Social Development Canada (p 11). While using such a database facilitates inter-community collaboration, it should be properly maintained and updated in accordance with data storage standards to prevent loss or leaking of personal information. 

    The second program is the Housing Energy Management System (HEMS), which provides property owners with turn-key energy monitoring, planning management and financing services. Bridgewater will use TownSuite, the existing municipal property and financial management software, together with an Energy Management Information System (EMIS) as the core data platforms for this program (p 12). The goal is to develop a community-scale energy program powered by connected digital systems. One privacy concern here is that data being collected by these systems is attributable to specific property owners. A potential challenge may be balancing individual privacy with the benefits of improving community asset management. A risk assessment of TownSuite and the EMIS would be helpful for ensuring data being collected and processed is stored safely.

    The third program is the Community Energy Systems service, which aims to plan and develop community-scale energy systems like solar farms, district heating systems and microgrids (p 12). Bridgewater plans to develop a 6MW “solar garden” as a pilot project under this program, with future systems to come once research is complete. While the service seems like a good idea so far, the city has yet to research other energy services to be implemented. A potential concern is that energy technology reliant on sensors may compromise privacy if it tracks and collects personalized information. Bridgewater would be wise to explore ways to limit the data being picked up by community-scale heating systems and microgrids to the most essential elements or to de-personalize the information collected before analyzing it.

    The fourth program is the Mobility Improvement System, which receives information from the CAS and the HEMS to improve mobility in the community (p 13). Bridgewater is focusing primarily on public transit services and developing infrastructure, with eventual plans to include paratransit and ride sharing services. This program will use data collected by the CAS and HEMS together with mobility tracking from users to generate a dataset (p 13). Besides the privacy concerns for the CAS and HEMS systems, relying on mobility tracking means users are disclosing their location to the city. Depersonalizing this data will allow Bridgewater to collect usage statistics without tracking individuals who rely on public transit.  

    Finally, the fifth program is the Investment System, a mechanism for distributing investments into the first four programs. Bridgewater does not have an existing financial investment software, so energy financing services and companies will play a big role in this program’s development and implementation (p 13). The city will rely on external financial investment systems, like the MaRS Centre’s SVX platform, in combination with the EMIS system discussed above to distribute investments where needed (p 14). Such external systems should be carefully verified to account for data vulnerability and eliminate potential privacy concerns.

Conclusion

    Overall, Bridgewater is on track to implement innovative solutions to energy problems and become a model for other rural communities looking to optimise municipal services through technology. At face value, the Energy Poverty Reduction Program’s main privacy concerns are the security of proposed software, which may be susceptible to breaches, and the collection of potentially sensitive information through sensor technology. In accordance with Canada’s newly announced Digital Charter, the city would be wise to provide total access to digital services for each resident. Furthermore, Bridgewater should look to invest in digital literacy training to ensure the city can remain sustainable and competitive in a digital world.