How can smart cities make data a public good before time runs out?

26 Jul 2018

Amsterdam runs a number of smart city pilot projects. Image: Adisa/Shutterstock

While much of the public narrative around data involves breaches and misuse of private information, a new EU report argues that it could be used in positive and empowering ways.

EU Horizon 2020 project Decode aims to reinstate individual control over personal data while also figuring out ways for that information to be used for the common good.

Last September, Decode outlined its aims, which would be completed over a three-year period along with European partner organisations such as Nesta.

While data has the potential for personal and public benefits, this needs to be planned for immediately, according to the report. The world at large is becoming more aware of the possibilities and potential dangers that data can hold (Cambridge Analytica and GDPR being major catalysts) and governments should be taking responsibility in developing protective technology for citizens, particularly as smart cities continue to develop.

A new report from Nesta as part of the Decode project is calling for governments to follow the leads of some trailblazing administrations that are making use of data while prioritising privacy for individuals.

Data for good

Tom Symons, co-author of the report and acting head of government research at Nesta, said: “Data should be the fundamental public infrastructure of the 21st century, as were roads, street lights and clean drinking water in the past. As a partner on the Decode project, we want city governments to start reconceiving data as a new type of common good.”

Francesca Bria, Decode coordinator and chief technology and digital innovation officer at Barcelona City Hall, said: “It’s crucial that we establish a new social pact on data that will make the most of our data, whilst guaranteeing data sovereignty, collective rights to data and democratic control of digital platforms.

“By helping citizens regain control of their data, we aspire to generate public value rather than private profit.”

The goal is to essentially create ‘data commons’ from data produced by people, their devices and sensors – a shared resource enabling citizens to contribute, access and use the data for public good, whether that’s air quality, mobility or health.

What are smart cities doing right?

Barcelona is spearheading efforts, including a partnership with Barcelona City Council and the city’s digital democracy platform, Decidem. Data is aggregated and blended from a range of sources and will be available on a dashboard, potentially even being used in public policymaking. Anonymisation is a crucial element of the plan.

In Ghent, the smart city initiative is not a traditional one. Corporations have not assumed control over the personal data of citizens; instead, a model based on its ‘City of People’ strategy emphasises the individual in the creation of the system. Each citizen has an online profile called ‘Mijn Gent’ (My Ghent), enabling them to access library services and childcare while allowing them full control over the data they give.

In Amsterdam, companies such as Airbnb have contributed to rising rents, and a new Decode data pilot scheme will aim to insure landlords don’t break local legislation around holiday rental rules.

Over in the US, New York has created a set of internet of things (IoT) guidelines, establishing standards for how IoT devices are used in the city. The government in the city has introduced legislation mandating the creation of a taskforce specifically for monitoring algorithmic decision-making tools.

What should policymakers consider?

The report recommended lessons that city policymakers should take on board when considering smart cities or other connectivity initiatives.

  • Build consensus around clear ethical principles, and translate them into practical policies.
  • Train public sector staff in how to assess the benefits and risks of smart technologies.
  • Look outside the council for expertise and partnerships, including with other city governments.
  • Find and articulate the benefits of privacy and digital ethics to multiple stakeholders.
  • Become a testbed for new services that give people more privacy and control.
  • Make time and resources available for genuine public engagement on the use of surveillance technologies.
  • Build digital literacy and make complex or opaque systems more understandable and accountable.
  • Find opportunities to involve citizens in the process of data collection and analysis from start to finish.

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects