In Pilsen, when Jiri uses the Kolem Plzne bike-sharing system, the information about his movements, combined with all other service users, is shared with the local government to map city traffic and the use of cycling paths. The information also feeds into local decisions on the management and development of transport infrastructures.
Utility companies in Barcelona share data on their infrastructure works with the municipality in exchange for tax deductions. The shared data is used to compile comprehensive information on road works, prepare permits, provide updated and accurate information to engineers and builders about existing underground networks.
Rennes Metropole uses data on the shape of buildings and their age, details about roads, local urban zoning, vegetation, individual and collective housing – among others – to analyse energy consumption patterns. This is made possible thanks to a collaboration among the local government, energy providers and the urban planning agency. The effort is further facilitated by national legislation requiring energy providers to share specific sector and communities data at the national level.
Eindhoven grants parking permit discounts to electric car-sharing firm Amber Mobility in exchange for access to anonymised data on car use including number of vehicles, timeframes and areas of greatest use. The city then employs the data to evaluate decisions like where to place additional electric charging stations and parking facilities.
A first chance to regulate Business to Government data sharing
These are just a few examples of Business to Government (B2G) data sharing practices and their impact at the city level. “Data is produced, collected, managed and owned by different players,” explains Federica Bordelot, Policy Advisor for the Knowledge Society Forum at Eurocities. “Business to Government data sharing describes when a company – or any other private organisation – makes its data available to the public sector.”
So far, the access to privately owned sets of data is still largely unregulated. This is why the Data Act – for which the Commission is currently collecting feedback – is an opportunity cities cannot miss. It will be an extensive piece of legislation tackling data access and data sharing, and it will, for the first time, regulate government access to business and privately held data. “Because it’s the first time, we need to make sure to get it right and, for cities, to get the most out of it,” Bordelot explains.
Why share data?
Why are cities so eager to get their hands on this data? In a nutshell, local governments need them to develop public services and products benefitting people who live in urban areas. Companies own data about, for example, public spaces, buildings, roads, people’s habits and movements, and these are interesting to municipalities to improve their citizens’ quality of life. “We talk about improving parks and streets, increasing the public housing offer, or improving traffic flows and the use of parking spaces,” says Bordelot.
In some cases, cities need to access specific information to guarantee a public service or enforce the law. This is the case of short-term rental platforms like Booking.com or Airbnb; local governments need to perform checks on owners listing their apartments, ensuring, for instance, that they have a valid registration number or comply with local tax regulations. As no overarching legislation exists yet, each city has to negotiate a different agreement with each platform.
Give power to the Data Act
With the Data Act under preparation, cities expect to have a say in what to include in the new regulatory framework. “A huge amount of data is produced daily in cities, so cities should be recognised as a key player when talking about Business to Government data sharing,” says Bordelot.
Municipalities’ set of requests include, for example, that the regulatory framework should define categories of data that businesses are obliged to share with governments in a timely fashion, and that these categories should be defined in consultation with them.
Cities also demand that specific data sets – like those related to natural disasters or health emergencies – must be made available for free. For example, during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, Mastercard shared its information about retail spending trends with London officials to offer a snapshot of the economic conditions of each neighbourhood. This data sharing agreement has helped inform local budget planning, optimise aid disbursement, and prioritise investment to support citizens most affected by the coronavirus crisis.
The regulatory framework should also include clear liability and accountability rules for both businesses and governments when sharing data, ensuring that data sharing complies with all pre-existing regulations, such as the GDPR.
Perhaps most importantly, because the sharing of private data is justified as a “benefit to the public interest”, the definition of public interest should be more clearly defined and co-drafted with city governments to ensure that their needs are taken into account.
The struggle so far
The lack of a shared definition of public interest is one of the municipalities’ main challenges today. “The idea of public interest for a city isn’t necessarily the same as for a member state or a region because they have different needs and responsibilities,” explains Bordelot.
Once an agreement on the definition of public interest will be reached, a further obstacle for cities will be to know what type of data businesses hold, which they could ask to access. “So much data is produced and collected every day, but it’s difficult to access information about how much data and what kind of data is collected,” explains Bordelot. “Knowing more about the quantity and type of data held by a company could help a city understand which new service to develop or how to improve an existing one.”
Even when a city knows what to ask for, data quality may pose extra hurdles. “If there’s an accident blocking the road, and the city asks TomTom to update it on traffic information, it expects to have the latest updates and not information dating back to a month or a year ago,” says Bordelot. “If a city asks for data on a specific neighbourhood, but instead receives information about the whole region, it won’t be able to do anything with it.”
Good data quality also means data with the same or compatible standards, as Lisbon found out the hard way when developing an open source platform collecting real-time data on parking patterns of free bikes from operators. Providers shared data with different standards, making it difficult for the Portuguese capital to process and put together in an overview. “If you can’t use data, that data has no value,” says Bordelot. “Quality determines data’s value.”
Access to private sector data by public institutions is an emerging field with different practices: it includes data donorship, companies sharing data at no cost and on a voluntary basis; the acquisition of data through public procurements; the addition of data sharing clauses to tender contracts; bilateral negotiations and cooperation agreements, among others.
Some sectors have more experience than others. For example, several lessons can be learned from a mature market like mobility data sharing, while data sharing in the energy and short-term rental market is still being tested.
The Data Act will start the process of regulating some critical aspects of Business to Government data sharing. Still, it remains crucial that cities share their experiences and join forces to level the playing field and get what they need, no matter their size.
And what about cities sharing their data with businesses? Well, that’s a story about the existing open data legislation, and cities are already showing off the results.
Read the Eurocities statement on Business to Government data sharing here.