“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.

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

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

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