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How payments data holds the key to smart city development

There is now a widespread recognition that the current approach to smart cities needs to evolve

The appetite for the evolution of smart cities – which can be loosely defined as an environment where data collected from inhabitants and their behaviours is used to introduce and improve efficient services and amenities – remains consistent; both from consumers who want them, and technology companies who want to develop them.

This interest in smart city development will no doubt continue to increase in 2018 but, crucially, there is now a widespread recognition that the current approach to smart cities needs to evolve.

Why? Well, to date, most smart city initiatives have been heavily data-driven projects, typically based on data gathered from IoT sensors and devices located everywhere from railway tracks to retail outlets. This data can be analysed to identify solutions that can streamline and optimise many aspects of city life; transport schedules, road congestion and much more. But as cities such as Barcelona are finding, there’s more to making cities smart than simply installing a host of technology systems and waiting for the data to flood in.

This is because, as a recent, sceptical article in The Atlantic pointed out, there’s a big difference between what people are currently doing and what they actually want to do; after all, they can only use the infrastructure and services that they’re offered, and cannot wish new ones into existence.

There are already examples of better sources of data than those preferred previously, that indicate a different approach to smart cities may result in greater success e.g. look at what Citymapper has done in London. By identifying a gap in the transport network from its app-generated consumer data and creating a new bus service to fill that gap, Citymapper has demonstrated that smart analysis of relevant data has the ability to generate warranted, legitimate services that are not yet available.

Thanks to its open data strategy, that service soon appeared on Google Maps, quickly making travellers aware of its existence. By using its own data creatively and sharing it with the world, Citymapper has created something that London’s own transport infrastructure wasn’t providing; a great example of a smart city initiative from an unlikely source.

Why payments present an opportunity to take an improved approach

Payments data is, of course, affected by some of the same issues that have blighted previous smart city data analysis, because people can only spend money on the things that already exist. But one big difference of payments data is that it has a clear elective component. People may only have one commuting option, but they have a variety of payment options; and the one that they choose can tell you a great deal about who they are and what they might want. Credit cards, mobile wallets, and pre-paid cards all have very different demographics and usage patterns; so understanding who used what, when, and what for, can be a powerful tool in planning future services, rather than simply relying passively on monitoring of choices made from default options.

The same is true for digital alternative payment methods. Through examining data generated by consumers who use cash to make payments online via a service such as paysafecard, or via digital wallets such as Skrill or Neteller, including geographic location (e.g. the most frequented paysafecard outlets) city developers can tailor their services (and payment methods for those services) in accordance with the preference and characteristics of those consumers, adding another contextual layer to the crucial insight of the city’s inhabitants.

Digital breadcrumbs

These factors, coupled with the huge volume of data generated by payments which are integral to consumers’ everyday lives, make payments platforms important drivers for new growth and innovation in cities everywhere. Payments data tells us where people are spending their money, what they buy, and which neighbourhoods are thriving or failing. It tells us how much people spend on everything from food to travel, to fuel, and where they spend it. And of course, it’s at the heart of highly disruptive, game-changing services such as Uber and Airbnb.

Looking at payments data tells innovators not just what someone did and when; it tells us what they were prepared to pay for that service and, crucially, what they did next. In this respect, payments can be described as the breadcrumb trail of the digital world, and therefore an ideal foundation for building bottom-up organic smart city services, rather than the top-down, rigid, infrastructure-heavy services that have characterised most smart city pilots to date.

Analysing payments data in practice

There is already a recognition in some quarters that payments data provides valuable insight into the habits, needs, and wants of inhabitants. In 2018 we will see more smart city projects turn to this data in search of better solutions.

The utility of payments data in propelling smart cities is the reason that Paysafe has been involved in the Canadian Smart City Project. A recent joint survey, published by Paysafe and Amilia, revealed that more than half of American citizens would use their local parks and recreational amenities more if they could book and pay for them digitally; a clear indication of the potential of simple payments-driven initiatives to improve the lives of urban dwellers.

In addition, Paysafe’s own forays into this bottom-up approach to smarter city services have been yielding fruit for some time. Our GOLO app is one great example; by watching trends carefully and inferring actual consumer desire rather than making assumptions about behaviour, we have built an app that is making life more convenient for citizens in residential neighbourhoods, whilst helping to boost local business at the same time.

Looking ahead

Ultimately smart cities, in the same manner as the cities that they are destined to replace, will develop in their own unique and unpredictable directions. When the dust settles no two smart cities will be the same, or will have taken the same path to get there. However, inevitably there will be identifiable common characteristics of successful smart cities, and preferred data sources that will underpin them.

Momentum is building behind payments being one of these key building blocks in smart city development. The ubiquitous nature of payments, coupled with its ability to pinpoint consumer preference without the need to implement addition data capture infrastructure, can be harnessed to create insight that is more powerful and useful than current prevailing sources.

As this trend continues to grow Paysafe will build on the initiatives and research we have already put into motion to facilitate smart city development that is focused in this new direction.

This article is the latest in a series taking a closer look at Paysafe’s top ten payment trends for 2018