Cities must embrace data democracy for the public good

The Smart Cities Expo in India, May 2016. Image: Getty.

In April, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was summoned to Capitol Hill to answer the questions of 44 US senators. The sole witness in a joint senate committee hearing held in front of the world’s media, Zuckerberg was called to account for the alleged harvesting of Facebook users’ data by election consultancy Cambridge Analytica.  

Fielding questions from senators representing millions of Americans, from Rhode Island on the east coast to Washington State in the west, Zuckerberg said Facebook was striving to correct issues with its platform. The election data scandal risked bringing to a screeching halt the meteoric rise of a company that has engineered a paradigm shift in the way that we share, use and value data.  

The affair provided a revealing insight into the intricate relationship between data and power in the information age. With an incessant focus on innovation at all costs, the leading lights of Silicon Valley have fundamentally changed the way that we do things. From finding love to organising a demonstration against an oppressive regime, California’s technology entrepreneurs have ripped up the rulebook and started from scratch.  

Companies like Facebook are leading the charge towards a new era in which we are willing to surrender our data to the technology firms that shape the modern world. But we’ve been accorded little time to make sense of what this will mean for our privacy, our democracy, and our quality of life. Big tech is quick to tell us how their services will make us richer, healthier, and more sociable. Yet it’ s reluctant to set out how surrendering our data risks depriving us of control over our own lives.  

 A 2016 KPMG study revealed that almost six-in-ten global consumers are concerned about the way companies use their data. According to a 2017 poll commissioned by the Information Commissioner’s Office, just 20 per cent of Britons have faith in organisations to store their personal data correctly. Despite massive public unease about the way we share the information that is integral to our daily lives, conglomerates are routinely allowed to extract commercial value from our data.  

It’s high time our data was put to use by European cities for the public good rather than private gain. Embracing a democratic revolution, this means putting data back in the hands of citizens and their elected representatives. Harnessing the power of data to transform public service provision for people who live and work in urban areas, the European smart cities movement is central to this.   

Smart city technologies embrace data to tackle the pressing challenges that keep city leaders awake at night. They enable cities to do more for less, saving time and slashing bills for taxpayers by ensuring public services are more responsive to public demand. Smart lampposts use data to monitor air pollution hotspots, enabling city authorities to make better-targeted air quality policy. Smart energy management systems use data analytics to forecast energy capacity requirements and reduce the threat of blackouts.  

Funded by the EU, 12 Smart Cities and Communities Lighthouse Projects are pioneering innovative ways of creating new data-driven value for citizens. Founded in 2014, the initiatives are at the frontier of a global movement to ensure data is kept under the control of ordinary people and their elected representatives. The Lighthouse Projects are putting city authorities in the driving seat, ensuring it is citizens not corporations that have the final say when it comes to how our data is used.  

By bringing together cities, industry and citizens to demonstrate new ways of using data that can be scaled up and replicated, the Lighthouse Projects are finding answers to the pressing questions that will define our data landscape in the decades ahead.  

They are delving deeper into how citizens can best harness the value of their data. They are diving into unchartered waters by asking the questions that we can no longer afford to duck. How do we address the balance between free services and value in data? Would we be prepared to pay for Google to prevent our data being sold to the highest bidder?  

In London, Sharing Cities is making it easier for citizens to access key data on everything from transport to the environment and community safety. The London Datastore provides access to more than 700 datasets, allowing citizens to make sense of the city they call home. In Cologne, Grow Smarter has introduced an urban traffic app that gives citizens access to real-time data on traffic congestion hotspots. In Lyon, Smarter Together is collecting electricity usage data in a bid to better understand the energy demands of the city economy.  

The curious case of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica makes plain the power of data in shaping our economy. The more we grant citizens power over their data, the more we can begin to harness it to the benefit of wider society. City leaders must embrace this agenda or risk being left behind. Now more than ever it’s clear that delivering the smart cities of the future is non-negotiable as we seek to forge a truly democratic future for data.  

Nathan Pierce is current chair of the Board of Coordinators of the 12 Lighthouse Projects. He is programme director of Sharing Cities, one of 12 Horizon 2020 Smart Cities and Communities and Lighthouse Projects.


Covid-19 is highlighting cities' unequal access to green space

In the UK, Londoners are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

As coronavirus lockdowns ease, people are flooding back to parks – but not everyone has easy access to green space in their city.

Statistics from Google show that park attendance in countries across the globe has shot up as people have been allowed to move around their cities again.

This is especially true in urban areas, where densely populated neighbourhoods limit the size of private green space – meaning residents have to go to the park to get in touch with nature. Readers from England can use our interactive tool below to find out how much green space people have access to in their area, and how it compares to the rest of the country.


Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement Monday that people are allowed to mingle in parks and gardens with groups of up to six people was partially following what people were doing already.

Data from mobile phones show people have been returning to parks across the UK, and also across Europe, as weather improves and lockdown eases.

People have been returning to parks across the world

Stay-at-home requirements were eased in Italy on 4 May, which led to a flood of people returning to parks.

France eased restrictions on 1 May, and the UK eased up slightly on 13 May, allowing people to sit down in public places so long as they remain socially distanced.

Other countries have seen park attendance rise without major easing of lockdown – including Canada, Spain, and the US (although states there have individual rules and some have eased restrictions).

In some countries, people never really stopped going to parks.

Authorities in the Netherlands and Germany were not as strict as other countries about their citizens visiting local parks during lockdown, while Sweden has famously been avoiding placing many restrictions on people’s daily lives.

There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that access to green space has major benefits for public health.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Exeter found that spending time in the garden is linked to similar benefits for health and wellbeing as living in wealthy areas.

People with access to a private garden also had higher psychological wellbeing, and those with an outdoor space such as a yard were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than those without access to outdoor space. 

Separate UK research has found that living with a regular view of a green space provides health benefits worth £300 per person per year.

Access is not shared equally, however, which has important implications for equality under lockdown, and the spread of disease.

Statistics from the UK show that one in eight households has no garden, making access to parks more important.

There is a geographic inequality here. Londoners, who have the least access to private gardens, are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. 

However the high population in the capital means that on the whole, green space per person is lower – an issue for people living in densely populated cities everywhere.

There is also an occupational inequality.

Those on low pay – including in what are statistically classed as “semi-skilled” and “unskilled” manual occupations, casual workers and those who are unemployed – are almost three times as likely as those in managerial, administrative, professional occupations to be without a garden, meaning they rely more heavily on their local park.

Britain’s parks and fields are also at significant risk of development, according to new research by the Fields in Trust charity, which shows the number of people living further than a 10-minute walk from a public park rising by 5% over the next five years. That loss of green spaces is likely to impact disadvantaged communities the most, the researchers say.

This is borne out by looking at the parts of the country that have private gardens.

The least deprived areas have the largest gardens

Though the relationship is not crystal clear, it shows at the top end: Those living in the least deprived areas have the largest private green space.

Although the risk of catching coronavirus is lower outdoors, spending time in parks among other people is undoubtedly more risky when it comes to transmitting or catching the virus than spending time in your own outdoor space. 

Access to green space is therefore another example – along with the ability to work from home and death rates – of how the burden of the pandemic has not been equally shouldered by all.

Michael Goodier is a data reporter at New Statesman Media Group, and Josh Rayman is a graphics and data visualisation developer at New Statesman Media Group.