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Are data trusts part of the answer to smart city data governance?

In the light of recent scandals, cities have no choice but to pay urgent attention to data governance issues. Could data trusts be part of the solution?

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City governments and authorities are increasingly deploying sensors in public spaces. The data collected from these sensors can support the delivery of public services, such as better traffic control and more efficient management of the electricity grid.

 

For instance, parking space sensors can cut the number of cars circling to find a spot. If it’s an electric vehicle, the amount of electricity used will probably be logged too. New technologies such as 5G will increase the types of sensors used, and arguably reduce their cost and ubiquity.

 

In the rush to install sensors, fundamental questions about the governance of the data are often missed.

 

However, in the rush to install these sensors, fundamental questions about the governance of the data – and how the benefits of these technologies are distributed – are often de-prioritised or missed.

 

What happens to all the data collected through these sensors? Who controls it and what further benefit do citizens get, given they’re intimately involved in the creation of this data?

 

Transparency

 

In the light of recent scandals around social media platforms such as Facebook, cities have no choice but to pay urgent attention to these data governance issues – particularly as the world of smart city sensors is perhaps less transparent than social media in many ways.

 

The world of smart city sensors is less transparent than social media in many ways.

 

As individuals, we can understand how the data created by the personal information we share online can be used to target adverts and services to us on the web.

 

In a smart city context, it may not always be so obvious when data is being collected, by which organisation and for what purposes. And, how do citizens exercise their rights to consent to data collection and opt out?

 

The unique nature of data collected in the city makes some of the data governance issues less transparent and perhaps more abstract for the average person.

 

Private partners

 

Smart city data governance issues are further complicated by the introduction of the private sector, who will increasingly be involved in installing sensors in cities.

 

For instance, in London and cities around the UK, InLinkUK is replacing BT telephone boxes with InLink kiosks. These allow members of the public to make phone calls but also incorporate an electronic advertising billboard and high-speed internet access, as well as having Bluetooth connectivity and cameras integrated into them.

 

At the moment, there is no city-wide governance of the implementation of private sector sensors, or oversight of the data collected from them.

 

At the moment, there is no city-wide governance of the implementation of private sector sensors, or oversight of the data collected from them. This introduces friction both for the private sector and for citizens who want to understand what data is collected about them.

 

London is by no means the most developed city in terms of the implementation of sensors, and other cities have started to think about how to respond to these complex data governance issues.

 

In Toronto in Canada, for instance, Sidewalk Labs (part of the Alphabet group, which owns Google) has been awarded the contract to design a new waterfront development. The current plans include a whole range of potential use cases for sensors to be installed to control and improve various aspects of this part of the city.

 

Sidewalk Labs has proposed an Independent Civic Data Trust which would control all the data collected in the smart city development. However, this proposal has been met with mixed responses from the data activist community in Toronto, who continue to have concerns about the control that Alphabet will have.

 

Data trusts

 

The broader concept of a ‘data trust’ is being actively explored by a number of UK organisations, including the Open Data Institute (ODI) and Nesta.

 

The ODI defines a data trust as a “legal structure that provides independent stewardship of data”.

 

The broader concept of a ‘data trust’ is being actively explored by a number of UK organisations, including the Open Data Institute (ODI) and Nesta.

 

Data trusts are seen as a potential way of giving citizens more say when it comes to the collection of data in cities.

 

To test this idea in a concrete context, I’m currently working for the Open Data Institute on their pilot with the Greater London Authority and the Royal Borough of Greenwich to explore the feasibility of a ‘data trust’ in London.

 

We’re testing the idea of a data trust against the data collection and sharing arrangements of the EU-funded Sharing Cities programme, where Greenwich is experimenting with installing a range of sensors to support the delivery of public services such as social housing and parking.

 

In our exploration, we’re thinking about the ways in which this data could be controlled by a data trust, permitting different uses for the data whilst also considering benefits to citizens or other defined groups and organisations.

 

Beyond regulation

 

Although individuals now have expanded rights over their data, under the GDPR and Data Protection Act (DPA), there are still strong arguments for us to be concerned about the governance of smart city data.

 

We might be able to get a copy of the data about us but we don’t always have control over how it’s used by others. Exploring governance approaches like ‘data trusts’ is part of an important discussion about who gets to use and benefit from citizens’ data.

 

As more of these technologies become ubiquitous, and as smart city initiatives become more mature and sophisticated, I believe there will be an increasing focus on governance issues and increasing pressure from a more informed, and in some quarters concerned, group of citizens in cities.

 

Failure to demonstrate due consideration of these issues could not only risk inappropriate access to smart city data, and the associated bad press, but also increase the likelihood of a lack of citizen acceptance of potentially useful technologies.

 

Data governance issues may not have typically been the most glamorous or innovative part of smart city initiatives but they are now starting to receive the interest and activity that they deserve.

 

Ed Parkes is an independent consultant working on data strategy and open innovation. He has worked with the Open Data Institute, Future Cities Catapult and Nesta on data innovation projects to support public services and social benefit. You can follow him on Twitter @edtparkes.

 

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