“People should control their digital identity”: Barcelona’s chief technology officer on the DECODE Project

Barcelona in 2010. God I wish I was in Barcelona. Image: Getty.

Barcelona’s chief technology officer on the city’s involvement in the DECODE Project.

Today, citizens have little say in how their data is gathered or used. It’s no secret that large technology companies mediate most of our online and offline activities, collecting huge quantities of personal data, and keeping it under lock and key: Google does this with search and email, Amazon with shopping, Facebook with social networking. In addition to eroding our privacy and autonomy, this monopolisation of data also creates troubling economic inequalities.

Giving citizens the opportunity to proactively use their data to improve their lives and communities should be a hallmark of a fair and just digital society. Yet, too often, citizens are treated as passive producers and consumers of data, effectively disempowering them. 

We believe that people should control what happens to their digital identity, who uses their data and for what purposes. DECODE – DEcentralised Citizens Owned Data Ecosystem – is an experimental project to develop practical tools to protect people’s data and digital sovereignty.

The project is building towards a data-centric digital economy where citizen data, generated by the Internet of Things (IoT) and sensor networks, is available for broader communal use, with appropriate privacy protections. As a result, innovators, startups, NGOs, cooperatives, and local communities will be able to use that data to build apps and services that better respond to individual and community needs.

Today’s digital economy treats data as a commodity to be traded in secondary markets – a development made possible through ubiquitous and permanent surveillance facilitated by big technology firms. A recent study by the London School of Economics for the European Parliament argues that centralising computing, data storage and data-driven service provision in the hands of a few players weakens the innovation ecosystem, favouring the incumbents and erecting new, unsurpassable barriers to entry. In time, it constrains user-driven innovations, particularly those oriented towards social impact without a strong monetary component.

Furthermore, as AI and machine learning continue to shape the future – consider the likely impact of the driverless cars on our cities or precision agriculture on the environment, or deep learning in the healthcare sector – there’s no getting away from the fact that we badly need a democratic means of controlling the platforms and data that will be used.

Fortunately, the current paradigm is not the only solution. We believe that, once the appropriate privacy protections are in place, this abundance of data could benefit all of us, not just big companies.


The solution

So, how do we take advantage of the best that is offered to us by digital technologies while rejecting the worst – whether that be the highly precarious nature of work, or the penchant for rampant property speculation that have become the hallmarks of many digital platforms.

First and foremost, the thorny questions around the ownership, control and management of personal data, preemptively decided by big tech firms on everyone’s behalf, must be addressed. The premise of DECODE is that the data we create on the internet, through mobile phones and other personal devices, has enormous value. This data belongs to us.

Recent news stories build an even stronger case for this narrative to change and for projects like DECODE to be brought to life. Take for example how reports in the Guardian have unveiled the role that personal data played in influencing voters in the Brexit referendum and during political elections. Meanwhile, cyber-attacks, hacks and surveillance scandals are seemingly endless.

DECODE is an experiment in how cities and municipalities – Barcelona and Amsterdam are two key project partners – can help resolve those dilemmas of the digital society that are not yet handled by nation states. DECODE is to make a strong contribution to the ethos of democratic, digital urbanism – underpinned by encrypted and decentralised technologies for data management – that is emerging in many cities across the globe.

One reason why cities have failed to foster local alternatives to dominant internet services such as Uber or Airbnb is because of the lack of access to relevant data. In the cities of Barcelona and Amsterdam, DECODE will pilot local data platforms to change this. The platforms will operate on a different economic logic, promoting solidarity, social cooperation, as well as citizens and workers’ rights.

This logic is embedded in the tools, which combine blockchain technology with attribute-based cryptography. The decision of whether to share data (and on what terms) will be made by citizens taking part in the pilots in an informed and secure way. We also develop a new system of data rights and entitlements to facilitate the ownership and sharing of information.

Barcelona and Amsterdam have a long history of empowering citizens with digital technologies. Earlier this year, Barcelona launched the Barcelona Digital City Roadmap: towards technological sovereignty, which encourages citizens to have an active voice in decisions that affect them, including data ownership. In 2014, a project called D-CENT was piloted in the city; it improved participatory democracy and was used by two influential political groups. Now Barcelona uses a digital democracy platform called Decidim Barcelona to involve citizens in key policy decisions and actions, from urban planning to culture, tourism and mobility.

We believe that only a “New Deal on Data” can help us make the most of our digital technologies, while guaranteeing data sovereignty, data protection and privacy. Thus, a transition to a more inclusive digital economy can only be possible if we succeed in building new distributed infrastructures to share data, create encryption technologies for the people, and experiment with new data ownership regimes.

If you’d like to know more about DECODE and take part in the city pilots, please visit our website decodeproject.eu, follow us on Twitter @decodeproject.

Francesca Bria is DECODE Project Lead and Chief Technology and Digital Innovation Officer at Barcelona City Council.

 
 
 
 

Here are eight thoughts on TfL’s proposed cuts to London’s bus network

A number 12 bus crosses Westminster Bridge. Image: Getty.

In 2016, the urbanism blog City Observatory had a modest proposal for how American cities could sort out their transport systems: “Londonize”.

Its theory, the name of which referenced another popular urbanism blog, Copenhagenize, was that the key plank of Transport for London’s success was something that even transport nerds did not consider very sexy: its buses.

Though the Tube might get more glamorous press, London’s bus service really is impressively massive: It carries roughly 2.3bn passengers per year—much more than the Tube (1.3bn), close to the New York City subway (2.8bn), and nearly half as much as every bus service in America combined (5.1bn), while serving a population roughly 1/35 as large.

How has TfL done this? By making its bus network high frequency, reliable, relatively easy to understand and comprehensive. We rarely talk about this, because the tube map is far more fun – but the reason it’s so difficult to fall off the transport network in Greater London is because you’re never that far from a bus.

Given all that, we should probably talk about TfL’s plans to rethink – and in most cases, cut – as many as 36 different central London bus services over the next few months.

I’m not going to rehash details of the changes on which TfL is consulting from next month: there are just too many of them, and anyway it’s someone else’s scoop. The story was originally broken by Darryl Chamberlain over on 853 London; there’s also some fascinating analysis on Diamond Geezer’s blog. You should read both of those stories, though preferably not before you’ve finished reading this one.

Before offering my own analysis of the proposed changes, though, I should offer a few examples. More than a dozen routes are facing a trim: the 59 from King’s Cross back to Euston, the 113 from Oxford Circle to Marble Arch, the 171 from Holborn all the way down to Elephant & Castle and so on. A couple – the 10, the 48, the C2, and at most times the special routemaster version of the 15 – are being withdrawn altogether.

On, and one new route is planned – the 311, from Fulham Broadway to Oxford Circus. This will help plug some of the cuts to the 11, 19 and 22.

So, what does all this mean? Some thoughts:

1) This might not quite be as awful as it initially sounds

TfL says that demand for buses has fallen by around 10 per cent in London in recent years. It predicts it’ll fall further when Crossrail opens, as passengers switch to the new line, or to the tube routes relieved by the new line. So: the idea of taking some unwanted capacity out of the system is not, in itself, terrible.

Striping out unnecessary buses should also improve air quality in some of London’s worst pollution hot spots, and improve traffic flow, hopefully speeding up journeys on those buses that remain. 

A map from the presentation in which TfL explained its plans, showing the reduction in bus numbers on key arteries. Hilariously, notes Darryl Chamberlain, “It no longer produces its own maps, so has had to use one prepared by a bus enthusiast”.

The plans might even free up buses and staff to increase frequencies in outer London where demand hasn’t fallen – though these plans won’t be unveiled until next year and, for reasons I’ll come to below, I’ll believe it when we see it.

2) For many bus users, a lot of these changes will pass almost unnoticed

By my count, I use nine of the affected routes with any regularity – but only three of the changes are things that I’m likely to be at all inconvenienced by. Most of the changes either affect a part of the route I don’t take, or one where there are easy, and pain free alternatives.

This is anecdotal, obviously – perhaps I’m just lucky. But my suspicion is that a lot of these changes will go unnoticed by most passengers. It’s only the sheer number of them happening at once that makes this look like a big deal.

3) The Hopper fare makes this easier...

Once upon a time, if you had to switch buses, you had to pay a second fare. This isn’t true of journeys on the tube or railways – and since bus passengers have, on average, less money than tube passengers, it amounted to a pretty unfair tax on poorer Londoners.

But in January, in what is probably his most notable policy achievement of his two years in office so far, London’s mayor Sadiq Khan changed the rules. Now you can take as many buses as you want within an hour, for a single fare: that means you can switch buses without paying a penalty.

That will have made it easier for TfL to cut routes back: replacing a direct bus journey with one that requires a change no longer means imposing a financial penalty on passengers.


4) ...but not that easy

That’s about where the good news stops, though – because there are reasons other than cost why people prefer direct bus routes. Needing to change buses will be difficult for anyone with any form of mobility impairment, for example. Even for those of us lucky enough not to fall into that category, it’ll be annoying: it’s just easier to stay in one seat for 40 minutes than to get turfed off and have to fight for a new one halfway through.

More than that, from the passengers’ point of view, excess capacity feels quite good a lot of the time: it means your bus may well be nice and empty. Reducing the number of buses along those key corridors will also make those that remain more crowded.

5) The motive is almost certainly financial

Another of Sadiq Khan’s big policy promises was to freeze fares. He made this promise at a time when central government is massively reducing the financial support it gives TfL (the work, Chamberlain notes, of Evening Standard editor George Osborne, back when he was chancellor). And the Hopper fare, while a great idea in many ways, means a further reduction in income.

So: TfL is scrambling for cash: this is why I remain cynical about those new outer London bus routes. I would be amazed if money wasn’t a motivation here, not least because...

6) TfL thinks no one will notice

Any attempt to reduce tube frequencies, let alone close a station, would result in uproar. Hashtag campaigners! Angry people pointing at things in local newspapers! Damning reports on the front of the Evening Standard from the bloke who made it happen!

Buses, though? Their routes change, slightly, all the time. And do you really notice whether your local route comes every 10 minutes or every 12? That’s not to mention the fact that bus passengers, as previously noted, tend to be poorer – and so, less vocal – than tube passengers.

So cuts, and the savings they bring, are much easier to sneak through. TfL probably would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for those meddling bloggers.

Although...

7) Scrapping the C2 might be a mistake

The C2 runs from Parliament Hill, through Kentish Town and Camden to Oxford Circus. In other words, it links north London, where a lot of journalists live, to the offices of the BBC and Buzzfeed.

As occasional New Statesman writer James Ball notes, this is probably not the easiest route to quietly shelve.

8) None of this is set in stone

The consultation doesn’t even begin until next month and then will run for six weeks – so all these plans may yet be forgotten. We shall see.

Anyway – here’s Darryl Chamberlain’s original scoop, and here’s some detailed analysis on Diamond Geezer. Please support your local bloggers by reading them.

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

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