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.

 
 
 
 

The Fire Brigades Union’s statement on Theresa May’s resignation is completely damning

Grenfell Tower. Image: Getty.

Just after 10 this morning, Theresa May announced that she would resign as Britain’s prime minister on 7 June. A mere half an hour later, a statement from Royal Institute of British Architects president Ben Derbyshire arrived in my inbox with a ping:

“The news that Theresa May will step down as Prime Minister leaves the country in limbo while the clock ticks down to the latest deadline of 31 October. While much is uncertain, one thing remains clear – a no deal is no option for architecture or the wider construction sector. Whoever becomes the next Prime Minister must focus on taking the country forward with policies beyond Brexit that tackle the major challenges facing the country such as the housing crisis and climate change emergency.”

I was a bit baffled by this – why would the architecture profession try to get its thoughts into a political story? But then Merlin Fulcher of Architects Journal put me right:

Well you know construction is a larger contributor to GDP than financial services, and most of the work UK architects do is for export, and at least half of the largest practice (Foster + Partners) are EU, so there's a lot at stake

— Merlin Fulcher (@merlinfulcher) May 24, 2019

So, the thoughts of the RIBA president are an entirely legitimate thing to send to any construction sector-adjacent journalists who might be writing about today’s big news, and frankly I felt a little silly.

Someone else who should be feeling more than a little silly, though, is Theresa May herself. When listing her government’s achievements, such as they were, she included, setting up “the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower” – a fire in a West London public housing block in June 2017 – “to search for the truth, so nothing like it can ever happen again, and so the people who lost their lives that night are never forgotten”.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, is having precisely none of this. Here’s his statement:

“Many of the underlying issues at Grenfell were due to unsafe conditions that had been allowed to fester under Tory governments and a council for which Theresa May bears ultimate responsibility. The inquiry she launched has kicked scrutiny of corporate and government interests into the long-grass, denying families and survivors justice, while allowing business as usual to continue for the wealthy. For the outgoing Prime Minister to suggest that her awful response to Grenfell is a proud part of her legacy is, frankly, disgraceful.”

A total of 72 people died in the Grenfell fire. At time of writing, nobody has been prosecuted.

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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