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.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”