Viivi Lähteenoja, Special advisor for data policy at the City of Helsinki and Nuutti Sten, Data Scientist at the City of Helsinki, presented the latest UserCentriCafé back in December 2021. Their conversation focused on the role of building trust when it comes to offering digital public services that have the user at their centre. In this interview, they tell us more about Helsinki’s approach to user-centricity and their expectations for the project and their involvement in it.
At the last UserCentriCafé, you mentioned that there was a broad interest in the user-centric and human-centric approaches at the World Economic Forum, but that they were also understood differently by different stakeholders. So, what is user-centricity for you, and why is it important?
User-centricity is a kind of human-centricity. We all wear different hats: consumers, users of products, citizens, parents, children etc. One of these roles is resident and user of local government services. So, for the city, it means building services that give autonomy and choices to the person, rather than putting data or technology first and doing the ‘cool’ thing for the sake of it.
The main idea is to help the user and do that through valuing a co-creation approach to digitalisation and data utilization.
Concretely speaking, can you give an example of how Helsinki does user-centricity?
We have a proactive pre-school allocation service. Previously, parents had to go through a lengthy process of filling out forms and calling day-care centres to find and select one for their kids. Today, the city, which already has information on the age, address, and first language of a child, proactively reaches out to guardians and offers them a day-care centre allocation that they can accept or refuse with a simple text message.
We bring the service to the people who need it instead of them having to do the work to receive it. Of course, they can still do the research and selection themselves if they prefer, but our results show that this service is very appreciated, with 9 out of 10 families accepting the offer.
On top of this, we are now working on proactively providing subsidies to families or households who qualify for them. It’s another example where, instead of forcing users to go through a lengthy process to get what they are entitled to, the city can directly offer the service to the people who need it by accessing the relevant data from the tax authority through user consent.
I should point out that proactively offering subsidies to all who qualify actually costs the city money, because currently not all who qualify actually receive these subsidies. For us, however, getting people the support they need is the priority. We’re here to serve the people.
It’s not only about digitalisation. You can have a proactive analogue service, for example, our national cancer screenings programme, where we send letters to people who have a higher risk of emerging cancer to get screened for prevention and early treatment.
At the UserCentriCafé, you focused on healthy trust relationships, and Viivi said: “Something that bothers me is when we say people must trust us, the city, but it should be the other way around. We should be trustworthy, and we need to act in a way that people can trust us.” Could you expand more on how power is related to building trust?
Power is one of my favourite things to talk about. For example, it’s also recognised in the GDPR, that when a significant imbalance of power exists between the digital service user and providers, such as exists between the resident of a city and the city government, the service provider has special restrictions on how consent can be used as grounds for processing personal data. When there’s an asymmetry or imbalance of power, the one with more power must bear more responsibility.
To say: “come and trust us, the city” is organisation-centric. What I would consider user- or human-centric, is to say: “what can I do to be worthy of your trust?” We should also consider the relationship we are building with the user and whether it’s healthy.
There are very few cases of trust relationships between equal parties. One definition of trust is where one party has the power to hurt the other one, and the latter trusts it not to do so. Trust has to be earned, and that’s the part that I’m missing from the conversation. What are you doing to ensure that you are worthy of my trust?
Avoiding harm is the baseline. In addition, benefit and value can be created when data is shared and re-used on people’s terms.
Some of the ethical work that we’ve been doing is around accountability. How much are we, as cities, accountable to individual residents and how much to the collective and public good? This also plays a part in the trust relationships residents have with their local governments. The foundational principle of democracy is the agreement of all parties to put their collective good, the public good, above maximising their individual gains.
That is also a foundation for healthy trust: the knowledge that we all adhere to this shared principle. In this way, I am able to trust that when I need support, I will not be left behind. And I will be happy to support others when I’m in a position to help. That’s the deal.
Do you have a specific example in mind?
In services involving sensitive personal data like employment, health care and education, people are more reticent to share their data. However, by sharing this sensitive data, you can help everyone else because it allows us to improve these services significantly.
What is your role in UserCentriCities, and why did you decide to join?
When we saw the project, we thought: “This sounds exactly like what we should be doing!” Now we’re looking to support the work in the spring by providing some data for the dashboard.
We are also considering creating some working groups on these ethical issues in the future.
Do you feel that the project has influenced or changed how you work?
It has definitely inspired me! It’s encouraging to feel like you’re not alone.
It’s good to share a common goal and encourage each other, especially since the human-centric approach is still new.
Is there one specific thing that you have learned from a project partner?
Maybe not learned, but Rotterdam reminded me of this fact and reinforced my belief in it. They said “user-centricity is not rocket science,” and I thought that was fantastically concise as well as accurate, because we do have the technology. It’s only the mindset that needs to shift. It’s not always easy, that’s for sure, but it is very simple.
Turning our look towards the future: what is the thing that you’re most looking forward to within the project?
The dashboard is interesting because we want to see how different cities approach these issues. As a data scientist, I’m interested in seeing the metrics and getting some data on the topic. So far, we think that we are pretty advanced on digitalisation and data utilisation, but we don’t have a lot of metrics on that, so I’m curious to see what will come out once we have more information to compare.