Navigating the data world

6 September 2021

Who has the right to access your data? Who controls the algorithm that controls what you see online? We interview Simon Chignard, who has spent the past seven years contributing to defining and apply national data policy in France. He has worked as a senior policy advisor to the French Government and just recently become an independent expert on the question of data governance working for Urban Innovative Actions (UIA) –  a Pan-European programme helping European cities to develop innovative solutions. As an expert on everything data, algorithms and Artificial Intelligence (AI), and participation and open government, he will be opening the Eurocities Knowledge Society Forum on 22 September.

You will be introducing this year’s Knowledge Society Forum meeting, organised by the city of Rennes, with a keynote speech called ‘Sharing, using and managing data in the cities of the future.’ What are the important points that you will touch on?

In my speech, I would like to deal with two different questions. The first one is to analyse the question of ‘citizens in the data world’, which is also the overall title of the meeting. What does it mean to be a citizen in the data world today? There are obviously many different ways to be a citizen of the data world.

The second question I would like to tackle is what role cities and local public authorities could play in such a world to be able to enhance citizens’ trust, which is essential to going forward.

Both of your questions highlight the role of citizens. Why are citizens central?

As individuals, we all have an ambivalent relationship with data. For example, the privacy paradox makes people very careful when explicitly asked about the use of their own personal data, but their actual behaviour is very different, mine included. So, I want to discuss why we fall into paradoxes like this.

I will also have a look at how the Covid-19 crises impacted citizens relationship to personal data sharing. For example, some European countries, including France, require you to prove your identity and show a QR code to prove your vaccination status to just have a coffee outside. If you had told me that two years ago, I wouldn’t have believed it.

As a society, we will share more and more personal data, at the same time, the question of trust is a growing concern for most European citizens.

How can cities contribute to building trust with citizens?

I think there are many ways to address this issue, as European cities are already doing.

Some cities, for example, are asking private companies in the mobility sector to share anonymised data to make sure that they act ethically.

So, regulation is one way to build trust.

Another way is to focus on data literacy to make sure that people are aware of data, not only because of a need for privacy, but also to make sure that they understand what data is, its limitations, and how cities can use it positively.

And last but not least, cities can build their own tools, like Rennes is trying to do with RUDI, their open source platform. During the keynote, I will give many other examples from cities, because, as the saying goes: “Nations speak, but cities act.”

As a conclusion, I would also like to emphasise the current and forthcoming European legal framework, because it can create strong opportunities for cities to act on their territory.

How can data literacy, and better digital knowledge more broadly, help to build trust?

We should adopt a step by step approach.

First, we need to make sure that everyone understands how data is collected right now. Data is not only collected actively but also through digital traces. For example, most local bike-sharing schemes collect a certain amount and type of data.

The next step is to make sure that everyone knows that there are some solutions to protect their privacy. Berlin is a really interesting example of a city running a data literacy programme, and offering open-source tools to local associations and civil society for their everyday work.

The destination is still quite far away, but it’s not an excuse for not taking the first steps.

You mentioned that the EU legal framework can be an opportunity for cities to act. Why ‘can’ and not ‘is’?

Let’s take the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) for instance. Based on my seven years of experience in working for the government, I can tell you that it takes time to build a regulation.

We first need to make sure that cities are heard on future regulation. For example, the regulation on Business to Government data sharing, which regulates how local public authorities can access data from private companies, should consult users about what kind of data sharing is being discussed.

If your mobile phone company is collecting data about you and sharing it with your local public authorities, of course you want to make sure that the data is anonymised and that it can’t be traced back to you. But you should also have a right to say something about how your data will be used and if, as a citizen, you agree with that use.

Why are people more willing to agree to sharing their data with private companies compared to the public sector?

It’s a complex question, but I can see two different reasons.

The first one is related to a very rapid cost-benefit analysis we all do when evaluating a situation. If you use Google Maps daily, you are aware that this service, which is free of charge, runs on a different business model.

I’m not sure that people have such a clear view of the benefits when it’s the government that is using your data. Especially because the most evident ways are related to, for example, making sure that you pay your taxes

The second reason is a lack of trust in government in general. On this aspect, local authorities could have an impact because we tend to trust that which is very close to us. So, it’s easier to trust your local mayor or your local executive rather than your national government.

There are examples of cities that have tackled this issue by engaging with their citizens. For instance, in France, the city of Nantes published a charter about how people see the use of their personal data by the municipality.

You mentioned Nantes, which is one of the cities that has been working on a public algorithm registry. Is transparency also an important issue in this case?

I first want to make clear that most cities nowadays primarily use simple algorithms, not advanced AI like facial recognition.

This said, we do need more transparency. Nantes, Amsterdam and Helsinki have all published AI registries, an example of how local governments could be more transparent when it comes to the use of AI and algorithms.

We also need more accountability, which is more difficult to ensure. Local and national governments need to explain why they use such systems, why they chose a specific algorithm, how it works and how it will affect the task it will be used to execute.

It is safe to bet that data will remain high on cities’ digital agenda for the foreseeable future as different aspects need to be discussed in more detail, discussions where citizens and local authorities will work together to ensure ethical, transparent and fair use of data.


*Members can discover the full programme of the Knowledge Society Forum and register here.


Wilma Dragonetti Eurocities Writer