Jaromír Beránek: I would like Prague to be an inspiration, even in the field of AI

Will artificial intelligence replace civil servants? That time is still a long way off, but data and technology can already make life in cities more pleasant if they are used properly, says Jaromír Beránek, Prague councillor and chair of the Committee on IT and Smart City.

Jaromír Beránek prg.ai

Compared to other Central European cities, Prague is ranked first in the IESE CIMI ranking, yet only 39th globally. What does Prague lack to be as smart a city as London, Paris, or the much smaller Reykjavik? 

First of all, we need to define what “smart” means. There are many similar rankings like the IESE CIMI, and each uses its own methodology. Considering that they take into account different factors and give them varying weights, looking purely at international rankings can be misleading. The IESE CIMI index, for example, rates services such as Uber or Lime very positively, which is perhaps surprising given that these services are recognised as controversial and are strictly regulated in many metropolitan areas. The absolute number of metro stations also scores positively, so it makes sense that smaller cities would be at a disadvantage in this regard. We should always ask what the criteria are and whether they correspond to our values and priorities. I was actually pleasantly surprised that Prague came 39th, which is not bad at all. It outranked cities such as Vancouver, Rotterdam, and Tel Aviv — all known for their high quality of life and technological maturity.

What smart characteristics and metrics are most important to you or the ICT Committee? What cities does Prague compare to within Europe?

An especially good model for us would be the German-speaking cultural region. We share similar histories, and it can inspire us with its high level of education, respect for the public space, and a certain orderliness in the best sense of the word. We often take inspiration from Vienna, which can set an example of facilitating active yet sustainable lifestyles and mobility by offering cycle paths, affordable rental housing, or innovative urban architecture that is not limited by parking requirements thanks to accessible public or shared transport. More examples for Prague can undoubtedly be found in Munich and, of course, in Switzerland. Many people would like to live in a city like Zurich, where the great added value is the proximity to nature, clean air, and sophisticated public spaces that are well-maintained and thoughtfully and elegantly planned. But this comes at the price of a very high cost of living. Quality public spaces are undoubtedly on the rise in Prague, but it is slow going. So far, it has not been possible to take full advantage of the post-pandemic context to increase the sustainability of urban life the way we see it in Paris or Berlin, for example.

In which areas is Prague lagging the most?

In short, as long as Prague does not offer the same high wage levels as Berlin, Munich, London, or inner Paris, we will lag. Another complicated area is urban development — we have a big problem with the length of legal procedures leading to construction, which can stretch up to ten years. An amendment to the Building Act should simplify this process, but it is vital to find a sensible balance between speeding up development and being mindful of local needs. Unfortunately, it seems more likely that the new Building Act will make the situation worse. Another Prague’s weakness, at least according to the IESE index, is technology. As far as the number of highly innovative tech companies is concerned, this would be a justified criticism — in this aspect, we cannot compare with the large innovation hubs of Switzerland or Finland. On the other hand, we easily surpass many cities in Europe and worldwide in research and development, even thanks to prg.ai’s activities.


Digitisation: Will Czechia ensure its future growth?

How willing are cities like London, Paris, or Barcelona — which are much further ahead in smart technologies — to share their know-how? 

There is a willingness to collaborate and share information in the spirit of open data, whether it’s London’s Datastore or Helsinki’s Infoshare project. Barcelona is building its Smart City concept on concrete technological solutions that are, logically, tailored to the local conditions and are not easy to transfer to other cities. In recent years, there has been a noticeable trend for cities to move from tangible hardware solutions such as smart benches to software services and urban data platforms. 

Why should cities be smart? What benefits does this provide to citizens?

Smart technologies enable cities to become more accessible to citizens and the whole urban community. They provide better services, gather important information, and present more opportunities for citizens to participate in the changes in the city. For example, one of Prague’s pilot projects monitored the fullness of sorted waste containers. Knowing the data and appropriately interpreting it can help optimise waste collection, resulting in a higher-quality public space and significantly reducing city expenses. 

Novel use of city data emerged at a hackathon a couple of years back when a competition team came up with the idea of visually informing about the occupancy of a metro train before it arrives at the station, thus allowing better dispersal of boarding passengers. But it’s not just about maintaining and running infrastructure — smart cities should also connect people and improve communication between citizens and institutions. In this area, Prague operates, for instance, the Změňte.to [Change.it] app, but its downside is that communication is fragmented at the level of city districts. There is also the Praha svítí [Prague Shines] app from Technology of the City of Prague, where people can report that their street lights are not on. There are many exciting projects, but the important thing is that the information collected gets to the right place to be adequately processed.

What do you think is more important: cost-effectiveness and sustainability of smart cities or the betterment of citizens’ quality of life?

I don’t think you can separate the two. If citizens see that the City is doing something good for them, they start seeing the city as more attractive, and they become interested in spending more time in such a space, which means they will pay taxes there for longer. The other side of the coin is the careful handling of city budgets, which is achieved in Prague through a vision linked to the digitisation of agendas that saves officials’ work and citizens’ time. These resources can then be used to push the Smart City agenda forward by building new tram lines, cycle paths, or even sustainable and affordable housing, for example, which has long been in short supply in Prague.

To what extent should private actors be involved in smart city solutions?

In the future, we can expect companies to contribute more financially to the public space and to have a much more significant influence on what the public space looks like — even for the purpose of securing quality employees. From the side of the City, it is essential to set rules for supporting innovative projects and partnerships and develop a clear vision. One such project is the so-called air scrubbers that we plan to install to clean the air in congested and polluted streets. The number of such applications and solutions will increase in the future, so the City should also be able to play the role of a partner for the private sector and determine what it wishes to foster on its territory.

One of the visualizations from the Pragozor portal, which presents open city data in an accessible way.
One of the visualizations from the Pragozor portal, which presents open city data in an accessible way.

Through the Operator ICT, Prague uses the Golemio data platform, which collects information on waste collection, air quality, and much more. Are these platforms being fully utilised?

Certainly not, even though they already offer over a hundred different datasets. Since last year, we have also been running a visualisation and popularisation portal, Pragozor. The quality of the inputs in transport and air quality is great, but it is often challenging to obtain any data at all in some domains. It would certainly be interesting to have data on the number of tourists in particular locations or to have better-mapped business opportunities across city districts, but this kind of detailed information is lacking even from the City Council itself. Our data platform has been — and still is — used a lot in the pandemic context, where we have a pretty good grasp of how the situation is developing in different districts, thanks to data visualisations. We have a model of bed occupancy in hospitals, both in routine and intensive care. Through the Golemio platform, we can also track the progress of the vaccination strategy in Prague, so it helps us distribute vaccines more efficiently to the vaccination centres that are co-managed by the city.

What should Prague be like in ten years? What should it offer to its citizens?

I think Prague should have its own vision; it should not cling to the image of some other city, neither in Europe nor in the world. And if I were to describe that vision from my point of view, Prague should build on what it has been historically given. We should strive to make Prague as educated, cultural, and rich a city as possible. It should undoubtedly be more innovative, more competitive, and should attract more talent from abroad. We should get rid of the image of an inexpensive city where people go for cheap alcohol. Let’s offer perfect services for demanding clientele and congresses instead.

How can Prague work towards this? 

I think we will not be able to find our way around a relatively large package of investments in education and infrastructure, for example, in high-speed rail lines, where the Czech Republic is still lagging, or in the construction of affordable housing. I would also like Prague to become an inspiration for others once again — and I think that our activities in the field of artificial intelligence can contribute to this too. We can build on our historical tradition and promote powerful stories, whether literary — Franz Kafka, Karel Čapek — or even myths and legends. For example, the Golem, which is also a being of artificial intelligence, or the legacy of alchemists from the time of Rudolf II. Thanks to this strong heritage, which is present throughout the city’s historic core, we can put a familiar, human face on technology and innovation and offer people who come here not only a functioning innovation ecosystem but a strong cultural connection as well.

You mentioned artificial intelligence. It fuels many technologies, even those that can infringe on privacy. What’s the stance of the City of Prague in this matter? 

It is not my place to speak for the entire council and the representatives of the respective political parties; I can only offer the perspective of the Czech Pirate Party, for whom the topic of personal data protection and privacy is a priority. I dare say that we have more experience with the digital sphere than traditional politicians, and we perceive privacy threats as a significantly greater risk. We are therefore careful not to contribute, knowingly or unknowingly, to Prague spying on, eavesdropping on, or monitoring its citizens. 

About a year and a half ago, we commented that the state police wanted to make greater use of the city’s camera system to monitor Prague citizens using facial recognition technology. We say that it is rational to be concerned about the future misuse of such technologies. From my point of view, it is also important to insist that such data be processed only under rigorous conditions, for the shortest possible period of time, locally, and with the most thorough anonymisation and aggregation methods.

Should citizens be alert?

In general, I think that we are moving in the right direction in Europe, which is not leading to the erosion of civil and human rights. We should vigorously oppose anyone wanting to expand the scope of the data collected under the guise of anti-terrorism measures or national security. I am, for example, very much opposed to the trend whereby many insurance companies want to install boxes in cars that will monitor whether the driver is driving defensively, for example, or outside some parameters defined by someone sitting at a desk. Instead, we should strive for as educated a society as possible where we can make informed decisions. We must resist the tendency towards a uniform society in which we will not be able to decide for ourselves at all — because then it could very well happen that we would refuse to take responsibility for any of our choices. And I would consider that a dangerous mistake.

We should vigorously oppose anyone wanting to expand the scope of the data collected under the guise of anti-terrorism measures or national security.

Is there any thought of crowd surveillance, for example, during tense football matches? 

That’s a difficult question. I think it will be challenging to find the correct answer. Our view on this issue may evolve over several years. I could cautiously make the case that technology is appropriate in such areas and situations because it can make the job of police officers easier. But it would only make sense if strict anonymisation and respect for the privacy of all involved are ensured and if facial recognition is not involved. If some risky behaviour is evaluated beforehand, it could possibly help prevent unnecessary injuries or damage to health and property. Personally, I would still prefer to have a human police officer or a member of an anti-conflict team on the street.

Where does the current City Council see the place of artificial intelligence in Prague?

In cooperation with the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics at Charles University and a law firm, we are launching an exciting project on e-fines which aims, among other things, to contribute to the digitisation and automation of the preparation of documents for decision-making on the issuing of fines for traffic offences. AI will serve as a helpful tool, but a civil servant will always have to make the final decision. The advantage lies mainly in saving time and in eliminating routine tasks. 

However, we should not absolve ourselves of the ultimate responsibility that lies with the individual because, in the area of public administration and local government, each of us has the possibility of defending ourselves by appeal or even by administrative action against maladministration. And the moment that AI or a robot makes a decision, and quite possibly does not even give a reason why it has made that decision, we would lose that option. So it is too early to say that everything will work purely automatically; that is still the distant future, and we will have to work our way through many political and ethical discussions to get there. I personally enjoy being part of it because I believe that we can make the world a better place by working through them.