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Data ownership could unleash truly smart cities

A simple way to control personal data could foster greater trust around smart city initiatives and open up a discussion around what citizens really find valuable – an extension of participatory budgeting, giving people a say in how they ‘spend’ their data.

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We don’t need to hear that “data is the new oil” or “gold” again – not only is it a worn-out cliche but it perpetuates the idea of a far-removed industry that makes a few people very rich.

 

You could argue that is the case with data now but this needs to change, and soon.

 

Several high-profile incidents have thrust personal data and its use into the spotlight. There’s an increasing understanding of the power and value of data – and of just how uneven the distribution of those things is.

 

Tech companies rake in billions from data and there’s a growing sense that the people who generate that data should get more back in return.

 

Ideas to redress that balance are beginning to emerge, both in the private and public sector, through initiatives to give more power to people.

 

Data dividend or data dignity?

 

California Governor Gavin Newsom put forward the idea of “a new data dividend” that could allow consumers to be paid for their data by companies like Google and Facebook.

 

Meanwhile, Microsoft is creating a ‘Data Dignity’ team in its CTO’s office which could help users to control their own personal data, ultimately to the point of perhaps being able to trade it.

 

First, though, people need a control mechanism which lets them set the rules of engagement around data – who uses it, when and for what purpose. Then, things could get really interesting, eventually even moving towards a dynamic pricing market for data, with its value fluctuating based on privacy preferences, perceived value and data scarcity.

 

California Governor Gavin Newsom put forward the idea of “a new data dividend” that could allow consumers to be paid for their data from companies like Google and Facebook.

 

Not all the value is monetary, of course. Despite data being critical for advancing and improving many public services, people are often unclear on what they’re getting in return.

 

Research by HERE Technologies found that many consumers lack clarity on what happens with their data when they share it, and also that they are more willing to share their data if they see a clear benefit, such as safety and security, receiving a service or greater convenience.

 

Another survey by the ODI found that just 31 per cent of Brits said they trust their local authority to use personal data ethically – less than those who would trust a bank or building society (42 per cent). Just seven per cent would trust public transport providers.

 

A simple way to control personal data could foster greater trust around smart city initiatives and open up a discussion around what citizens really find valuable – an extension of participatory budgeting, you could say, giving people a say in how they ‘spend’ their data. Further, greater transparency and active opt-in would enable cities to move forward with data utilisation more confidently.

 

There are many things to solve – big and small, ethical and technical but it’s exciting to see the wheels that are in motion.

 

Shifting the balance

 

The DECODE project recently published a report on pilots in Amsterdam and Barcelona which made use of advanced technology to allow citizens to decide who they share their data with and on what terms.

 

For example, they were able to: sign political petitions without having to reveal sensitive personal information while participating in digital democracy platforms; log into local social networking sites with greater control over what data is being shared and for what purpose; share sensor data about noise nuisance and air pollution with their communities and council without security or privacy risks; and prove their identity or other characteristics with a simple application without having to disclose sensitive information.

 

“The DECODE project declares that data produced by the citizen belongs to the citizen, so that the immense economic value that such data represents should be returned back to citizens,” said Francesca Bria, founder and project lead, DECODE, and former CTO of Barcelona.

 

The Brainport Smart District in the City of Helmond, the Netherlands, could serve as a pioneer for new models of ethical and transparent data use, where citizens are in control.

 

Meanwhile, the Brainport Smart District in the City of Helmond, the Netherlands, could serve as a pioneer for new models of ethical and transparent data use, where citizens are in control.

 

A data expert has been appointed for the project and an ethical committee is in the pipeline.

 

“I hope that the most critical people will join this ethical committee in order to help us with all the legal, philosophical and ethical aspects when it comes to data,” Cathalijne Dortmans, Deputy Mayor, City of Helmond and Chair of the Board of Brainport Smart District, said.

 

Giving more data power to people could be key to making the development of smart cities something citizens can actively participate in and influence, rather than something that is imposed on them. Should they choose to withhold data in certain areas, that tells us something too and could help drive better discussions, decisions and, ultimately, cities.

 

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