“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.

 
 
 
 

What are Europe’s longest train journeys?

The Orient Express was a pretty long train. Image: Getty.

For reasons that aren’t clear even to me, a question popped into my head and refused to leave: what’s longer? Britain’s longest train joruney, or Germany’s?

On the one hand, Germany is quite a bit larger – its area is 70 per cent more than Great Britain’s. On the other hand, Great Britain is long, skinny island and Germany is much rounder – the distance from John O’ Groats to Lands End is over 1,400 km, but you never have walk over 1,000 km to cross Germany in any direction.

And it turns out these factors balance almost each other out. Britain’s longest train, the CrossCountry from Aberdeen in Scotland to Penzance in Cornwall, runs 785 miles or 1,263 km. Germany’s longest train, the IC 2216 from Offenburg in the Black Forest to Greifswald on the Baltic coast, is exactly 1,300 km. Germany wins by a tiny distance.

Except then I was hooked. What about the longest train in France? Spain? Italy?

So I did what anyone would do. I made a map.

The map above was all drawn with the Deutsche Bahn (Germany Railways) travel planning tool, which rather incredibly has nearly every railway in Europe. The data quality is better for some countries than others (the lines in France aren’t quite that straight in real life), and the measurements may be a bit off – it’s not always easy to find the length of a train service, especially when routes can vary over the year – but it gives us a good idea of what the routes look like.

Let’s start with the UK. The Aberdeen to Penzance route isn’t really for people who want to go all the way across the country. Instead, it’s a way to link together several railway lines and connect some medium-to-large cities that otherwise don’t have many direct services. “Cross-country” trains like these have existed for a century, but because they crossed multiple different company’s lines – and later, multiple British Rail regions – they tended to get ignored.

 

That’s why, when it privatised the railways, the government created a specific CrossCountry franchise so there was a company dedicated to these underused routes. If you want to get from Edinburgh to Leeds or Derby to Bristol, you’ll probably want a CrossCountry train.

The usual route is Edinburgh to Plymouth, but once a day they run an extra long one. Just one way though – there’s no Penzance to Aberdeen train. 

The longest train in Germany is weird – at 1,400 km, it’s substantially longer than the country itself. On the map, the reason is obvious – it takes a huge C shaped route. (It also doubles back on itself at one point in order to reach Stuttgart).

This route takes it down the Rhine, the biggest river in west Germany, and through the most densely populated patch of the country around Cologne and Dusseldorf known as the Ruhr. Germany’s second and third longest trains also have quite similar routes – they start and end in remote corners of the country, but all three have the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan area in the middle.

You’re not meant to take the IC 2216 all the way from north east to south west – there are much more direct options available. Instead, it’s for people who want to travel to these major cities. They could run two separate trains – say, Offenburg-Dusseldorf and Griefswald-Cologne – but making it a single route means passengers benefit from a bit more flexibility and helps DB use its rolling stock more effectively.

France’s longest train exists for a very good reason. Most of France’s high-speed lines radiate out from Paris, and it’s very hard to get around the country without going to the capital. Usually to get from Marseille on the Mediterranean to Nantes near the Atlantic, you’d need to take a TGV to Paris Gare de Lyon station, then get the Métro across the city to Gare Montparnasse.

Once a day though, this TGV avoids this faff by stopping in the suburb of Juvisy and turning around without going into the centre. This lets passengers travel direct between the coasts and reduces the traffic through Paris’s terminals in the rush hour. The exact length of this route isn’t clear, but Wikipedia says it’s about 1,130 km.

Spain’s longest train is very different. This is the Trenhotel sleeper service from Barcelona to Vigo, and it’s pretty fancy. This is a train for tourists and business travellers, with some quite luxurious sleeping cabins. But it is a regularly scheduled train run by the state operator Renfe, not a luxury charter, and it does appear in the timetables.

Being dry, hot and quite mountainous in its middle, most of Spain’s cities are on its coast (Madrid is the one major exception) and as a result the train passes through relatively few urban areas. (Zaragoza, Spain’s 5th largest city, is on the route, but after that the next biggest city is Burgos, its 35th largest,) This is partly why overnight trains work so well on the route – without many stops in the middle, most passengers can just sleep right through the journey, although there are occasional day time trains on that route too if you want to savour the view on that 1,314 km journey.

Finally, there’s Italy. This is another sleeper train, from Milan in the north to Syracuse on the island of Sicily. It goes via Rome and travels along the west coast of... wait, it’s a train to the island of Sicily? How, when there’s no bridge?

Well, this train takes a boat. I don’t really have anything else to add here. It’s just a train that they literally drive onto a ferry, sail across the water, and then drive off again at the other side. That’s pretty cool.

(As I was writing this, someone on Twitter got in touch to tell me the route will get even longer in September when the line to Palermo reopens. That should be exciting.)

So those are the longest trains in each country. But they aren’t the longest in Europe.

For one thing, there are some countries we haven’t looked at yet with very long trains. Sweden has some spectacular routes from its southern tip up into the Arctic north, and although the Donbass War appears to have cut Ukraine’s Uzhorod to Luhansk service short, even Uzhorod to Kharkiv is over 1,400 km. And then there are the international routes.

To encourage the Russian rich to take the train for their holiday, Russian Railways now run a luxury sleeper from Moscow to Nice, passing through France, Monaco, Italy, Austria, Czechia, Poland, Belarus and Russia. This monster line is 3,315 km long and stretches across most of the continent. That’s got to be the longest in Europe, right?

Nope. Incredibly, the longest train in Europe doesn’t actually cross a single border. Unsurprisingly, it’s in Russia, but it’s not the Trans-Siberian – the vast majority of that’s route is in Asia, not Europe. No, if you really want a long European train journey, head to Adler, just south of the Olympic host city Sochi. From there, you can catch a train up to Vorkuta on the edge of the Arctic Circle. The route zigzags a bit over its 89 hour, 4,200 km journey, but it always stays on the European side of the Ural mountains.

Bring a good book.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray often tweets about this kind of nonsense at @stejormur.


All maps courtesy of Deutsche Bahn.