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The Civic Dimensions of Distributed Trust

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Trust used to be such a simple concept until technology got involved.

Most citizens know that trust and technology are inseparable every day when they type their PIN into an ATM or use their card key to enter their offices. But the concept of trust becomes even more complicated in the complex ecosystems of 21st century cities.

Cybersecurity experts are the first to tell us that trust is no longer the simple relationship between one person and the technology on the other end of the engagement. Trust has become distributed not only in the technological proliferation sense but also as related to the exponential social interactions that flow across that technology.

In other words, the trust relationship only begins when a secure logon is confirmed on a technology infrastructure. Increasingly the remainder of the trust equation is related to the citizen generated content or unstructured conversational data that flows across and between those structures.

We see this every day in the news coverage related to ISIS and their recruitment skills on various forms of social media. The convergence of radical content with encrypted transmissions is the epitome of the distributed trust challenge we live with.

Now we can use the example of ISIS as the extreme, but there are many more pedestrian examples of where trust, technology and content converge on social and technology networks apply to smart city strategy.

There are no two bigger issues on the urban hype curve than Internet of Things and Open Data. Both have tremendous trust and security implications, especially as they relate to critical urban services and infrastructures like public safety, energy grids and water supplies.

However there is considerable concern about the value of insight these implementations will provide vis-à-vis the cost of deployment. In other words I may trust the underlying technology, but I’m sot so sure how much I trust the information that is being distributed.

For example, one of my research colleagues tells me that one of the fastest growing content needs in cities is for a group she calls the “worried well.” She makes it clear that these are not the stereotypical hypochondriacs. These are people who are truly well but have an insatiable appetite for information about wellness and disease prevention.

As those of us who have children and pets will attest, the “first responder” for the worried-well when there is an injury or ailment is a Google search on the symptoms. Typically WebMD or will be the optimization winner, both of which rate relatively high on our trust meter. But are we ever really totally satisfied with that content? Don’t we really need an even more “trusted” source like someone who actually took their dog to the vet after experiencing the same symptoms.

This metaphor holds true as well for the socialization of content across the urban citizenry. Extracting volumes of (big) data from repositories and IoT and consumer-generated content feeds is not difficult. But finding data that is both meaningful and trustworthy is a massive task.

This is the true test of city governments ability to combine enriched technology with trusted content for the ever elusive return on citizen satisfaction.

Needless to say this distributed trust process does not happen organically. Just as with the need for cybersecurity experts on the data side, there is becoming an equivalent need for distributed cybercontent trust managers to monitor the trustworthiness of urban open data.

Many in Boston have vivid memories of the power of user-generated content during the Boston Marathon bombings, while at the same time recalling the number of “false positives” that needed to be filtered in order to get to the most trustworthy leads.

You may be thinking that this could be a daunting task considering the sheer volume of citizen produced content that could flow across city-operated web sites and apps.

The alternative is to have petabytes of secure content with questionable credibility and little to no value.


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