From a competition to a collaboration model for data

24 September 2021

“People in a data world have become click machines,” says Simon Chignard, an Urban Innovative Actions (UIA) independent expert, on the question of data governance. It’s difficult to challenge this claim when so many of us react almost automatically when prompted to  ‘Accept all’ cookies on any given website.

It’s an instinctive behaviour that shows ‘digital resignation’: users care about and would like to act on privacy, but when it comes to having a say in what and how their data is used, they feel they have too little power compared with organisations and businesses.

Do we trust anyone with our data?

According to the results of a survey by the Open Data Institute, people have very little trust in sharing their data with third parties. Family and friends have the highest score but barely make it over the half mark, with 59% of respondents willing to reveal their data to their loved ones. Municipalities should count themselves lucky as they fare slightly better than national authorities, with 35% compared to 31%. That leaves social media to score a meagre 7%.

“Creating trust is the guiding principle of our strategy,” says Yann Huaumé, Vice president for Digital Affairs and Smart City at Rennes Metropole. The city, for example, is working on implementing the idea of ‘ethical consent’ as part of the RUDI project. The team in Rennes wants to hit the sweet spot by introducing a consent procedure that is convenient and complete, which saves time compared to existing forms, and makes risks and benefits clear to users who have easy access and control over their data at any time. Refusing consent should also not mean denial of service, otherwise there wouldn’t be real freedom of choice.

What is data for?

If building trust is essential to data sharing, there’s no chance to do so if people don’t understand the relevance and impact that data can have on their daily life. That’s why Rennes has integrated a tool in RUDI that through storytelling shows users how ubiquitous data is.

Users can choose a character, a tool and a dataset, and will be presented with a concrete example of their everyday activity that either employs or produces data. The exercise also aims to highlight how data is essential to creating new and improved public services.  

From using data on buildings and energy consumption, to studying the best placement for solar panels, to improving mobility services based on user information, the impact of data is undeniable. “If we get data government right, we can build the right foundations to get our sustainable recovery right,” says Anna Lisa Boni, Secretary General at Eurocities.

Conflict of interest

While cities see data as a public good that can make a difference in people’s lives, private companies have made data their business model. “We need a paradigm shift, from competition to cooperation,” says Huaumé. And the current status where each city has to fend for itself and discuss their own agreements with each business isn’t viable.

Cities hope that the Data Act proposal planned for release at the end of the year will recognise the role and experience of cities in terms of Business to Government data sharing, providing them with a much-needed policy framework.

Cities are proceeding by piloting test projects, but it’s important that their experience feeds into the legislation so that what they learn doesn’t get lost. A common framework would also ensure that cities with different levels of digitalisation and unequal political and economic weight can be on an equal footing in front of businesses. “Let’s not create a two-speed data management, but show solidarity between cities,” says Huaumé.

Data moves across borders

“While cities share common objectives, there is no homogenous approach and methodology for Business to Government data sharing across the EU,” reiterates Cecilia Del Re, Deputy Mayor for Urban Planning, Environment, Tourism & Innovation in Florence. “Each city has a tendency to reinvent the wheel and focus on the local dimension. It is therefore difficult to look at the bigger picture on how to scale up cities’ individual experiences.”

When it comes to putting together a policy framework, the international aspect of data makes it even more important that cities get a chance to exchange their experiences and make them count. “Data moves across sectors and borders, and cities can make the connections. However, they need the means in terms of policy, infrastructure and knowledge,” explains Laia Bonet, Deputy Mayor for 2030 Agenda and Digital Transformation in Barcelona.

A peep into the future

To overcome the challenges of Business to Government data sharing, cities want to become enablers and guarantors of transparency and privacy protection; a sort of ‘city data steward’ that would oversee and direct the exchanges between all relevant stakeholders, ultimately benefitting citizens.

The last step would be to prove that cities are ‘walking the talk’ by basing their policies on the information gathered through data analysis. “Cities need to be able to show that sharing data is reflected in their policies and has a positive impact on the life of the city,” says Huaumé. These results would create a new culture of data sharing and reinforce a virtuous cycle.

*This article summarises the discussion that was held from September 22 to September 24 during the Eurocities Knowledge Society Forum organised by Rennes Metropole and titled ‘Citizens in a data world’. The full recording of the political roundtable ‘Data governance in cities – The foundation of a smart recovery’ with representatives from Rennes Métropole, Barcelona and Florence is available below:


Wilma Dragonetti Eurocities Writer