Author | Esther Fuldauer
To create a smart city, you don’t start with technology. You need to put citizens at the very center. This means thinking about citizens rights first instead of big tech vendors interests. This is precisely the approach of the Cities Coalition for Digital Rights, presented at the Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona in November 2018.
The Coalition started by Barcelona, New York and Amsterdam, with the support of UN-Habitat, aims to give back technological sovereignty to citizens and let us have a say in setting the direction for technological change. This Coalition sets out five core principles through its declaration: Universal and equal access to the internet, and digital literacy; Privacy, data protection, and security; Transparency, accountability, and non-discrimination of data, content, and algorithms; Participatory democracy, diversity, and inclusion; and Open and ethical digital service standards.
Smart cities are not just all about technology and infrastructure; they should give answers to concrete problems.
Technology shouldn’t hit our cities until we can think of how it will make our lives better or if we can have a say over them. Business models should be discussed and thought through their sustainability: will they create positive value locally?
Local governments need to be very clear about citizens digital rights and ethical digital standards, so the objective of the Coalition has been from the very beginning to develop an open source charter that can be implemented anywhere and adapted to local needs.
Smart cities produce vast quantities of data, and we must decide how to use it first. How can cities use this data to create public value? Can cities make sure citizens feel comfortable about sharing their data? People must know they have data sovereignty and that their fundamental rights are preserved.
Our world changed with the rise of the internet with our lives happening both offline and online, so having digital rights is also about regaining our democratic rights and human rights, it’s about our democracy and sovereignty. It’s really about what kind of world and what kind of cities we want to live in the future.
How cities can become defenders of citizens digital rights
One essential tool that cities have for development is procurement. Procurement is critical for defending digital rights because it allows for equitable participation and can be used to see what works and decide to scale specific projects, making sure that all stakeholders participate and creating a spillover effect on local economy.
For procurement to work in this way, having an open platform is essential, so it becomes a transparent process and anyone can see how their local government is spending public money, cutting down corruption in the process.
Procurement standards are also built in the charter, defending and prioritizing different aspects that must exist in public contracts: minimum wage, energy, sustainability clauses, gender balance, and technology sovereignty.
How data is dealt with is essential here. Whoever wins the bid for a city contract must give back to the city the data in a machine-readable format and use open standards. The data produced then belongs to all of us, becoming a common good which is owned by the citizens.
Procurement can also protect privacy by ensuring that public contracts have Privacy and Security by Design. Cities of the Coalition are working with cryptographers to do this. Then the companies under the agreement can provide open data and be shared on an open data platform, where anyone can go and fetch data to create data-driven services, generating even more wealth and economic development for cities, which is critical or otherwise all this data would remain locked-in.
Platforms and Algorithms
One of the big reasons the Coalition launched this project was because they realized they needed a joint approach in negotiating with digital platforms. A lot of these platforms have negative externalities, with a lousy impact, sometimes on labor rights, sometimes over the price of housing. Cities cannot correctly regulate because they have no access to the data. So one of the critical themes in the charter is seeing how companies in the digital economy share their data with cities.
Taking Airbnb as an example, if cities glean insight from the data on how this platform is affecting the housing market and pricing, what are the neighborhoods they are operating in, cities may be able to use that information to modify the affordable housing policy. The policy could be changed to redistribute social housing to areas in which there is more need, or for finding banks that are leaving houses empty for speculative reasons and expropriating accordingly. That is why it is crucial for regulative purposes to have access to this data.
Algorithmic transparency must be part of our digital rights, making sure that data and the algorithms are visible to us because what is opaque cannot be regulated. We need to understand what algorithms are in place and how they are being used. Another big reason for this is to get the companies to pay the taxes on how they are earning money. As they are using our data, digital platforms would be obligated to pay taxes locally.
What data sovereignty means is that data is a common good. Digital infrastructure should have cryptographic control. Project DECODE, which started In Barcelona, is a system that uses distributed ledgers, blockchain, and cryptographic control to access the data. The goal is that citizens can decide what data to keep private, what data they want to share, with whom and what are the terms and conditions. This way, people can make a new pact on data, establishing a more democratic framework for access.
Otherwise, citizens will keep asking themselves what alternatives are there if to use any private digital service data ends up in owned by the service provider. If you use Google, Facebook, or Amazon’s platforms, they are making a profit from our data, and cities and citizens never get any part of it. Cities need to establish an alternative digital infrastructure that people can start using.
Implementing all this comes down to policy, so there must be first a willingness from cities and visible, actionable steps. However, this goes both ways, city officials will have to do their part, but citizens will also, because if there’s no pressure from civil society, nothing will ever change.