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Smart city and open data – the state of affairs in Ukraine. An interview with Andrii Gnap.

Our new conversation with Andrii Hnap, CEO/Data Analyst at Waste Ukraine Analytics, about the general approaches, methodology, and challenges in creating a Smart City, as well as the achievements in implementing the Smart City project in Khmelnytskyi.

L4D: Tell our readers a little bit about your company Waste Ukraine Analytics.

Let’s say we collect data on waste that we have in Ukraine from public registers and try to see the bigger picture and bring together companies with best practices to move to a circular economy. And our second product is a solution for communities in Ukraine to analyze this data, create mandatory data sets, and generally plan their waste management activities systematically. We have been working in this direction for several years.

We deal not only with waste data, but also often simply aggregate information about companies, for example, the Unified State Register, licensees, and many other things that can affect the processes related to waste management in one way or another. Also, consulting, for example, we work with organizations that provide certain consulting services for sustainability components, for the transition to a circular economy, and for sustainable business in general.

Our main job is to bring them all together. In particular, this is matchmaking, marketplace, we bring companies together. People trust us, they trust our expertise and our vision, so we are engaged in establishing communication between companies. This process takes us a long time. We collect information about companies that work with waste recycling, about companies that produce waste, and try to compare it with management decisions at the local, regional, and national levels. So this is a lot of coordination work that we do.

L4D: Yes, coordination is very important and difficult. Let’s move on to the main topic of our conversation, Smart City projects in Ukraine.

I’ll tell you a little background about Smart City. In my hometown of Khmelnytskyi, we started working on this topic back in mid-2010, when I worked at Khmelnytskyi National University. We started studying it theoretically, started talking with colleagues about how to deploy it, but it was only in 2021 that we actually came up with a project where we could share our experience.

When I was hired by one of the consulting firms in Ukraine to be a local Smart City expert to implement the Green City Action Plan project in Khmelnytskyi.

That is, it was a group of experts on various topics who were working on a large complex document, where most of it was devoted to Smart City and its technologies. We worked for almost a year, consulting with the public, business, and the municipal authorities of Khmelnytskyi and using the EBRD methodology. The EBRD was the customer of this process. It was necessary to understand what a Smart City is, what examples we have in our city, how ready the regulatory framework is for this, and what projects can be implemented. Our research and its results will be published in the coming months, because this work has been completed and our team is now preparing to publish the results.

L4D: So the result of the work is a research report?

The result of the work is a five-year action plan for the city of Khmelnytskyi with possible investment attraction. This action plan is an integral part of the investments and loans that the city of Khmelnytskyi receives for the waste processing complex, for the landfill upgrade, for a number of activities. That is, this action plan goes along with these investments, and after that, opportunities to invest in other components, including Smart City, will be considered based on the results of the recommendations I provided, which we received after discussing with the citizens of Khmelnytskyi for a whole year, as long as this project lasted.

That is, the result will be a five-year plan for greening the city, where one of the components will be data for Smart City.

L4D: Is the topic of this project related to ecology and greening?

Yes, it’s a double transition, a green digital transition. My task was to coordinate how this data should be collected, cases, best practices that can be implemented in Ukraine. I have been working as an open data specialist for five years and have provided a lot of consultations and trainings on this and on open data in general, access to public information – this is my main expertise along with the circular economy.

L4D: How do you assess the situation with open data in Ukraine?

I assess the situation with access to open data before the invasion as a situation with positive dynamics, and this was recognized by independent experts who gave Ukraine quite high marks in the ratings. And even in the latest rating for 2021, which was released in 2022, Ukraine was ranked second in Europe in terms of maturity and initiatives.

In general, we have done a lot of cool projects over the past 5 years. But after the Russian invasion, we experienced a rollback of reforms due to the restriction of access to many registers, including very important ones. Such registers as the USR, registers of corrupt officials, etc. That is, the new version of the resolution that regulates these issues has gaps in which sets of data can be published, and all this has greatly affected access to open data. The public debate continues, where, on the one hand, the public and business say that data should be open, and the authorities say that it should not, but they cannot justify it with the legal mechanisms we have, namely the three-part test that is already in the law. They are indicating their position in such a way that it is not the right time, there is a war, we are closing everything in order not to cause harm. There was a natural, shocking moment, but I think the situation will improve with quality communication, and after the war is over, we will be very active in the field of open data.

L4D: In this project in Khmelnytskyi, how did you cooperate with the municipal authorities and citizens? Did they actively want to cooperate and get involved in the process? Are Ukrainians ready for this?

It is very important to distinguish between the goals of local authorities and citizens who can benefit from the use of smart technologies. The difficulties began with the Glossary, i.e. what we call “Smart”. If we focus on the EBRD methodology, it is quite clear that this is data from sensors, sensors, the Internet of Things that can be used to make decisions. The second source of data in a smart city is users, city residents who provide their data through smart applications in smartphones, which can be a source for certain smart solutions, social solutions, or used for notifications, surveys, and what we have implemented in Diia. The source of data for smart cities can be, as I said, sensors/sensors or residents themselves.

At this stage, there was a lot of dialog in Khmelnytskyi about how to interpret this correctly and how to plan projects based on this. Whether to install an air quality sensor around the city, various sensors on infrastructure, water pressure in pipes, and so on. This is an example of smart solutions that can be used to make management decisions.

It was important to explain how the data would be used. Next, we talked about the maturity of the analytical culture of data-driven decision-making. This is a systemic problem in Ukraine. For example, an engineer can sit there and say that my sensors, sensors, statistics show one thing, but there is a political decision when data is not used as a key component for making decisions. We need to develop this culture in our country, because smart decisions, smart cities, smart regions are about this, about data-driven decisions. That is, if we have thousands of data sources, statistical models and recommendations based on them, then it is necessary for the participants in the process to understand how this data is collected and how statistical models make decisions. In our Ukrainian realities, this is not always the case.

The situation changes if we conduct trainings and communicate, but not everyone understands the phasing and technological components and the role of data in the decision-making process, as our donors, such as the EBRD, understand it, as they record it in their methodologies.

L4D: Do I understand correctly that municipal managers lack the knowledge and the habit of focusing on data and using it correctly?

Entire departments and areas lack this, and work needs to be done to improve their knowledge. I have been conducting such work – trainings on analytical culture, building a process for working with data. It should be a team effort and everyone should have the same understanding of decision-making. Then there will be the result that local officials and management expect, and there will be political dividends. If they don’t understand how these technologies work, if there are no trainings, no explanations, then they make vague statements like: Let’s improve something, this or that. This should lead to formulations of the following type: we have a target indicator of 2.4 and we want to get a target indicator of 6.3. When a data-driven dialog is built in this way and it is supported by a statistical model that predicts that we can get a target of, for example, 5, but if we take certain steps, we will get our target of 6.3. We are not having such a dialog yet.

This is a process, and we are moving towards it, communicating and realizing it. At least in Khmelnytskyi, we have been working on these things for a long time with the residents and the authorities, so we expect a positive result. That’s why Khmelnytskyi is one of the pioneers and received this loan for the waste processing complex.

In general, decisions in Ukraine are not made in this way, political decisions are made, not based on data. Sometimes, organizations even have the desire, but they may not be technically ready, and staff with certain competencies are not always ready, because it is a really difficult process. But if they go through this process, they gradually reach the goal.

L4D: You’re talking about statistical data processing models, were they also developed as part of this project, or will this be the next stage?

This will be the next stage, but for some systems, this is included in the software: abnormal indicators, their fixation. For some other information systems, this will need to be developed. To accomplish this task, you need to have a certain analytical department, a data analyst, a data scientist, or an outsourced company. One of my recommendations for the Khmelnytsky City Council was to create a Smart City Committee, where there would be technical experts and experts with a political position, so that we could have a dialogue not only from the technical side, but also from the side of the current agenda. Unfortunately, it is not always the case that everyone speaks the same language. In reality, sometimes people who have the appropriate technical skills are not always able to speak and convey their thoughts correctly, not everyone has oratory skills, and it is necessary to hold a group discussion with different experts who could correctly describe the problem, correctly understand it for different stakeholders in this process.

L4D: Yes, misunderstandings are a big problem. At the moment, this council has not been created yet?

It hasn’t been created yet, it’s a recommendation, I made it as an expert, among many other recommendations. This is one of the EBRD’s recommendations to city councils. Given my experience in public relations in Ukraine, I think it’s a good idea. After a number of meetings between the team that worked on the Green City Action Plan and the people of Khmelnytskyi, I saw that sometimes it is quite difficult to communicate this properly for more complex projects.

For example, a proposal to install some sensors to track something, or some cameras to record something. You can come up with different tasks for these tools and creative solutions can be provided by people who are not technical specialists, they do not have such a bias, so such a recommendation would be useful for many city councils.

Businesses, civic activists, and just active citizens can come up with an idea. Independent technical experts can say how well such an idea has been successfully implemented in a city in Latin America or Europe, and say whether it works or not, or whether it needs to be slightly modified, i.e., to bring this dialogue to a qualitatively different level.

Of course, this should be a permanent committee that works systematically and constantly, like all other committees under public initiatives, authorities, and residents.

L4D: You’re talking about software now, has it already existed and is it working now, or will it still need to be created?

We are talking about the software that existed before and that can be created. The city of Khmelnytskyi has several data portals: an open data portal, its geospatial portal, which stores a lot of information that can be used for smart applications, software used by the utility company, which falls under the Smart category. This is all software that has already been implemented and used by the authorities, but it can be improved. So we had something to discuss before we started the Green City action plan. Of course, we made a number of proposals, taking into account the political agenda, taking into account the requests of the Khmelnytskyi community, what they considered a priority, what could be the projects in the direction of Smart, taking all this into account.

L4D: Do the portals that exist now exchange data with each other?

They are up and running, I don’t know what restrictions are imposed by wartime, but they are functioning and they are available, there is no ban on publishing information.

Yes, they have data exchange. They are designed to have mutual data exchange, to exchange data within the city council and for developers, but this is more for medium and large cities. For small cities with up to 100,000 residents, such portals, their support, and content can be a challenge. Usually, our residents and community representatives use a ready-made solution on a single state portal, or, if they feel politically powerful, they develop a local open data portal. There is a standard solution for local portals, and the Ministry of Digital Transformation helps to deploy them.

L4D: I read one article, I think it was in Poltava. There, a technical specialist disagreed with the fact that the city council had purchased expensive, powerful servers and said that it would have been better to use cloud technologies. Why do such situations arise?

That’s why we need a discussion at such committees, where technical experts can evaluate the tasks set by the city council team. If the technical experts say that it is necessary from the point of view of security or workload, and justify their position, members of the public could comment on whether this is reasonably sufficient, or whether it might be better to use a hybrid cloud, etc. But this is not a trivial discussion either, it all depends on the ambitions of the city council.

It depends on the goals and programs in the city. There is a city strategy for 5 years, usually some kind of digitalization program, there are relevant regional programs, taking into account the specifics of the region, which may require sensitive data or solutions for industrial symbiosis, etc. These solutions require thorough preparation and communication, and communication with those who benefit from them must be carried out to maximize the effect of such investments. If city officials purchase such expensive equipment, there should be clear benefits and results of its use for community businesses.

L4D: If we look at the examples of projects implemented in Ukraine that fall into the Smart city category, we see few technical projects, the bulk of them are smartphone applications, etc. What do you think is the reason for this?

I am not surprised that there are not many such examples because they require significant investments. It takes some time to get ready for a donor to invest in it. So far, from what I can see, in 2021 there were several cities that developed a Green City action plan: Kyiv, Khmelnytskyi, Mariupol, Kryvyi Rih, and I think Lviv was planned. These are quite large cities or, like Khmelnytskyi, quite progressive in terms of openness and publicity. Therefore, they had public materials because it was part of the process.

When the pipeline system is overhauled or the destroyed territories and cities are reconstructed after our Victory, a completely new infrastructure will be laid there. It is easier to install sensors in new pipes. Then, the housing and utilities sector can use this to monitor and predict leaks, forecast repairs and preventive activities.

The smart solution is that they study statistics and suggest a check at a certain time for a certain area where problems are likely to occur based on historical data. This reduces the number of scheduled activities. The smart system suggests: something is most likely to break down in that place, so you should look there. But this requires collecting statistics, understanding the meaning of the factors that influence, for example, a heavy load on a pipe, or a bridge that can lead to additional problems. This is all a certain analytical approach, and a solution is built and deployed accordingly. Therefore, if in this sense, city councils or our partners share this vision, these proposals, then it all comes down to our community power. If they strategically use smart approaches, there must be a component of transparency and accountability, then it works. Then you have to involve people, not just for the sake of appearances, but to really hear them, and then make a tool for people to influence decision-making, then using the data on the portals you can appeal to adequate decisions, and not just take the most expensive servers.

Our partners from the Czech Republic, who will be at the seminar, will most likely come with a series of technological solutions, and we will have this dialog, discussion, strategic vision, and communication on how to build all this in order to make investments and decisions come in. We can’t just take a ready-made solution from the Czech Republic, France, or Japan, we need to prepare for it qualitatively, and so far it has only worked where the EBRD has been a donor, because there is a methodology there, it is very detailed. Since I have been through this process, I know how they seriously work through the requirements, I can say that it will be a long process, and the larger the city, the longer the process. The scale of the city will have an impact on the scale of investment. We need to understand these things when we have this dialog.

A smart decision should be an objective, unemotional tool. When we are shown all the data, whether the data projects an accident or some negative consequences, and regardless of whether we like the city authorities, a decision must be made. And in our country, the political component still plays an important role.

L4D: How does society react in general, how prepared are we? Are municipal authorities ready?

We, as users, if you have an app, a notification, for example, we very quickly adapt to new services as ordinary city residents, which offer us to visit a fair, exhibition, or event and tell us that, please, there is a road repair, a traffic jam, do not go there, or your bus or trolleybus will arrive in 3 minutes. In this respect, city residents adapt quite quickly.

The other thing is how these solutions will be deployed, because you can do it for a million dollars, or you can do it for twenty thousand. The situation has changed, a startup has appeared on the market, and the same things can be done in a different way, cheaper. This can be difficult.

It can cost a lot of money to deploy a video surveillance system in a city if you buy NVIDIA software right away, when you have everything in the world being monitored, and you have to pay extra money for algorithms, or you have to deploy such a recognition system within the city council, or buy a ready-made one. All of this needs to be weighed up: the benefits and costs, the result and the impact we want to see, but this requires a dialog. What is important now, what smart solutions need to be implemented first and foremost, what options are available on the market now to implement this.

L4D: Doesn’t it happen that citizens want some smart solutions, but the data shows that other solutions are needed, and this conflict doesn’t happen?

The example of Khmelnytskyi is a ranking of what is first and foremost, if you want such solutions, then let’s have solutions in these areas. That is, you need to conduct public opinion polls, and democracy works here. If the majority wants some kind of mobile application to notify them about public transport, then this should be the first thing, or air quality notifications, then this should be the second thing. This should be a democratic way of expressing the will and then further actions of technical and economic calculation.

L4D: Thank you very much for the conversation.

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