Data by the people, for the people: why it’s time for councils to reclaim the smart city

Barcelona, a city mentioned in this story. Image: Getty.

European laws have ushered in a new era in how companies and governments manage and promote responsible use of personal data. Yet it is the city that looks set to be one of the major battlegrounds in a shift towards greater individual rights, where expectations of privacy and fair use clash with ubiquitous sensors and data-hungry optimised services.

Amid the clamour for ‘smart’ new urban infrastructure, from connected lampposts and bins to camera-enabled phone boxes, a fresh debate about digital ethics is emerging. Who decides what we do with all this data? And how do we ensure that its generation and use does not result in discrimination, exclusion and the erosion of privacy for citizens?

While these new sources of data have the potential to deliver significant gains, they also give public institutions – and the technology companies who help install smart city infrastructure – access to vast quantities of highly detailed information about local residents.

A major criticism has been a lack of clear oversight of decisions to collect data in public spaces. US cities have deployed controversial police technologies such as facial recognition without elected officials, let alone the public, being adequately informed beforehand – something which academic Catherine Crump has described as “surveillance policymaking by procurement”.

Meanwhile the digital economy has flourished around urban centres, with new digital platforms creating rich trails of information about our daily habits, journeys and sentiments. Governments often work with app-developers like Waze, Strava and Uber to benefit from these new sources of data. But practical options for doing so in a truly consent-driven way – that is, not simply relying on companies’ long T&Cs – remain few and far between. There’s no simple way to opt-in or -out of the smart city.

Given the increasing tension between increasing ‘smartness’ on the one hand, and expectations of privacy and fair data use on the other, how can city governments respond? In Nesta’s new report, written as part of our involvement with a major EU Horizon 2020 project called DECODE, we looked at a handful of city governments that are pioneering new policies and services to enhance digital rights locally, and give people more control over personal data.


City governments such as Seattle are improving accountability by appointing designated roles for privacy in local government, including both senior leadership positions and departmental ‘Privacy Champions’. The city’s approach is also notable for its strong emphasis on public engagement. Prior to the approval of any new surveillance technology, relevant departments must host public meetings and invite feedback via an online tool on the council’s website.

Elsewhere cities are becoming test-beds for new technologies that minimise unnecessary data collection and boost citizen anonymity. Transport for New South Wales, Australia, collaborated with researchers to release open data about citizens’ use of Sydney’s public transport network using a mathematical technique called differential privacy - a method which makes it difficult to identify individuals by adding random ‘noise’ to a dataset.

Other experiments put more control into the hands of individuals. Amsterdam is testing a platform that allows local residents to be “authenticated but anonymous”. The system, known as Attribute-Based Credentials, lets people collect simple and discrete ‘attributes’ about themselves in an app (like “I am over 18”), which they can use to verify themselves on local government services without revealing any more personal information than absolutely necessary.

Not all the policy measures we came across are about privacy and anti-surveillance. Local governments like Barcelona are fundamentally rethinking their approach to digital information in the city – conceiving of data as a new kind of common good.

In practical terms, the council is creating user-friendly ‘data commons dashboards’ that allow citizens to collect and visualise data, for example about environmental or noise pollution in their neighbourhoods. People can use the online tools to share information about their community directly with the council, and on their own terms: they decide the level of anonymity, for instance.

Local authorities are more nimble, and in a better position to test and develop new technologies directly with local residents, than other levels of government. As the tides in the personal data economy shift, it will be cities that are the real drivers of change, setting new ethical standards from below, and experimenting with new services that give more control over data to the people.

Theo Bass is a researcher in government innovation at the innovation charity Nesta.

 
 
 
 

Do South Hampshire deserve its own metro mayors?

Portsmouth. Image: Getty.

The idea of metro mayors is a good idea. So good, in fact, I think is should be brought to other conurbations, such as the south coast cities of Southampton, Portsmouth and Brighton.

Greater Brighton has already got the idea in motion – although it needs more momentum to make it happen and democratise it. The question is what changes in Hampshire are needed for a Greater Southampton or a Greater Portsmouth to exist?

A small bit of backstory. The government had an idea a few years ago to create a Solent City deal, which included South Hampshire and Isle of Wight. The plan fell flat because Hampshire County Council blocked it.

Hampshire today. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

This was the right thing to do in my opinion. The government’s ambition was to rope together a very diverse area with no clear economic heart – it was always going to be a bad idea. Giving the region an extra few million pound a year may have sounded good for strapped for cash councils in the area, but would have met with a lot of opposition and resentment from locals.

Redrawing the county map

I don't ask for much, just to drastically re-shape Hampshire. Image: author provided.

In order to make this happen, Hampshire's county council should be dismantled and all the councils in the county turned into unitary authorities. Various Hampshire councils have applied to create a Southampton City Region, to qualify for transport funding – but the current proposal doesn't include Romsey and Winchester.

This to me is short sighted and arrogant on Hampshire's part. It’s come about in part because Hampshire doesn't want to lose its "capital", but also because these are wealthy areas and they'd rather they weren’t mixed up with the sorts that live in Soton. We should bin that sort of attitude.

The proposed Southampton City Region. Image: author provided.

Much like Southampton, there is a desire for more cross-border partnership in the Portsmouth City Region (PCR), too. Most of the boroughs are established, though I’d favour a tiny bit of adjustment to create a Waterlooville borough and enlarge Fareham slightly. All that’s necessary requires is the breaking up of Winchester council (again) to be reused.

The current proposal includes the Isle of Wight, which I don’t think is a good idea. The city region proposal focuses purely on Ryde, a single town on a sparse island. The resources required to improve connectivity between the island and the Portsmouth region should be a lower priority when there are more pressing issues in the city-region, such as addressing housing and transport between Gosport and Portsmouth.

The proposed Portsmouth City Region. Image: author provided.

I realise that many in Hampshire do not like change: it’s difficult for a traditionally rural county to embrace its metropolitan potential. However, city mayors lead to greater productivity by improving the distribution of resources. The establishment of metro mayors for these cities will tackle issues that have been affecting Hampshire for quite some time: the poor transport and the inequality between different communities.