“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.

 
 
 
 

Community-powered policies should be at the top of Westminster’s to do list

A generic election picture. Image: Getty.

Over the past five decades, political and economic power has become increasingly concentrated in the UK’s capital. Communities feel ignored or alienated by a politics that feels distant and unrepresentative of their daily experiences.

Since the EU referendum result it has become something of a cliché to talk about how to respond to the sense of powerlessness felt by too many people. The foundations of our economy have been shifted by Brexit, technology and deindustrialisation – and these have shone a light on a growing divergence in views and values across geographies and generations. They are both a symptom and cause of the breakdown of the ties that traditionally brought people together.

As the country goes through seismic changes in its outlook, politics and economy, it is clear that a new way of doing politics is needed. Empowering people to take control over the things that affect their daily lives cannot be done from the top down.

Last week, the Co-operative Party launched our policy platform for the General Election – the ideas and priorities we hope to see at the top of the next Parliament’s to do list. We have been the voice for co-operative values and principles in the places where decisions are made and laws are made. As co-operators, we believe that the principles that lie behind successful co‑operatives – democratic control by customers and workers, and a fair share of the wealth we create together – ought to extend to the wider economy and our society. As Labour’s sister party, we campaign for a government that puts these shared values into practice.

Our policy platform has community power at its heart, because the co-operative movement, founded on shop floors and factory production lines, knows that power should flow from the bottom up. Today, this principle holds strong – decisions are best made by the people impacted the most by them, and services work best when the service users have a voice. Our policy platform is clear: this means shifting power from Whitehall to local government, but it also means looking beyond the town hall. Co-operative approaches are about placing power directly in the hands of people and communities.


There are many great examples of Co-operative councillors and local communities taking the lead on this. Co-operative councils like Oldham and Plymouth have pioneered new working relationships with residents, underpinned by a genuine commitment to working with communities rather than merely doing things to them.

Building a fairer future is, by definition, a bottom-up endeavour. Oldham, Plymouth and examples like the Elephant Project in Greater Manchester, where people with experience of disadvantage are involved in decision-making, or buses in Witney run by Co-operative councillors and the local community – are the building blocks of creating a better politics and a fairer economy.

This thread runs through our work over the last few years on community wealth building too – keeping wealth circulating in local economies through growing the local co-operative sector. Worker-owned businesses thriving at the expense of global corporate giants and private outsourcers. Assets owned by communities – from pubs to post offices to rooftop solar panels.

And it runs through our work in Westminster too – with Co-operative MPs and peers calling for parents, not private business, to own and run nurseries; for the stewards of our countryside to be farmers rather than big landowners; and for workers to have a stake in their workplaces and a share of the profit.

Far from being ignored, as suggested in last week’s article on community power, our work has never been more relevant and our co-operative voice is louder than ever.

Anna Birley is policy offer at the Co-operative party.