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.

 
 
 
 

Does it matter that TfL are renaming White Hart Lane station Tottenham Hotspur?

New White Hart Lane. Image: Getty.

Pretend for a moment that you’re travelling in the London of 1932. You’re taking the Piccadilly Line northbound and alight at Gillespie Road station. The name should be obvious: it’s inscribed in bespoke brown tiling on the platform.

But that 31 October, following an intense campaign by the eponymous football club, the London County Council changed the station’s name to Arsenal (Highbury Hill). The area’s growing association with the name “Arsenal” ended in a lengthy negotiation that changed maps, signs and train tickets alike. Football had acquired so much power that it changed the name of not just a Tube station but an entire suburb, even before the era of Wenger or the Emirates.

Now the spectre of name changes is on the horizon once again. As Tottenham Hotspur FC inches closer to completing its new stadium, the club is clamouring for a renamed Overground station. Despite the fact the new stadium is located on almost exactly the same site as the old just off White Hart Lane, and fans have long been calling the scaffolding-laden mess “New White Hart Lane”, the club’s executive director is adamant that the station’s existing name cannot stand. White Hart Lane station, on the Overground line leaving Liverpool Street, is set to be renamed “Tottenham Hotspur”, at a cost to the club of £14.7m.

Little has been made of the fact that this peculiar PR kerfuffle is tied to Spurs’ failure to convince Nike to sponsor the venue. Some sources have even claimed that the sponsorship is yet to be finalised because it is somehow contingent on the renaming of the Overground station; beyond the ridiculous Johnson-era vanity project that was the Emirates Air Line, it seems improbable that TfL will allow any more corporate-flavoured information pollution. There will be no “Nike Stadium” station on the way to Enfield, much as there is no “Emirates” on the way to Cockfosters, especially if public consultation gets a look in.

The scene of the crime. Image: TfL.

But there’s a problem with the new name, all the same. “White Hart Lane” already means “football stadium”, in the same way Loftus Road or Stamford Bridge do. Changing it to “Tottenham Hotspur” risks opening the floodgates to an “O2 North Greenwich” or a “Virgin Euston” at some point in future, names as banal as there are dystopian. The Greater London Authority has promised to spend the £14.7m fee on community programmes in the local area – but that’s not much money to set the precedent that a private company can mess about with the Tube map.


What’s more, as CityMetric has often observed, there are plenty of station names across London that could do with a tidy up. Picking one that’s perfect already and asking for £14.7m to change it is adding insult to injury. How much would it cost a community group if they asked to change the name of Goodge Street to Fitzrovia? Why does a vast corporate entity backed by international sponsors and thousands of season ticket holders get to set the standard?

Back in Arsenal’s day, changing names on the Tube must have been easy; changes could be accommodated gradually without bothering the every day traveller. But in our world of online information, maps and apps, name changes are rather more complicated.

The question is – if TfL can bring itself to balefully accept this particular proposition, why can’t it accept ours? Why sort out a single non-issue on the Tube Map when you can catch lots of real ones in one go? A day’s pandemonium might just be a price worth paying to fix the Bethnal Greens problem once and for all.