Using data to improve citizens’ lives

29 September 2022

One cannot talk about the future of the EU without mentioning data democracy and digital transformation. The EU itself has been doing everything possible to work towards a digital future where citizens are at the centre, with discussions of the new Data Act, among other specific decisions and debates that concern the average citizen as well as city governments.

A set of initiatives can be understood as a new social contract where society dictates the direction of technological progress. Technology and data can put people first and not the other way.

Francesca Bria. Image by Martin Kraft ( License: CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Francesca Bria. Image by Martin Kraft ( License: CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

According to Francesca Bria, President of the Italian National Innovation Fund, “EU has massive investments in infrastructure focused on the green and digital transition to answer the question of how to make sure that the digital transition has the values of the EU (human rights, democracy and protecting fundamental rights of citizens).”

We’ve seen the speedy digitalisation of our lives during the pandemic – from delivery of food and e-commerce to remote working, remote medicine, etc. – but, explains Bria, “policymakers know that the role of the EU is giving a direction, to understand the trends of digital transformation, to ask ‘digital for what?’, ‘How do we improve people’s lives with all of this and protect their rights?’”.

And, she says, “we must put people first. Citizens’ needs in the first place and putting digital services in service of the people.

We must start from the problems we need to tackle – new urban planning, sustainable mobility, housing, ecological transition, etc – and scale up solutions. Smart for whom and what kind of cities we are building for the future.”

We know that today, we live in a world where data extrativism is a rule, that is, only a few companies can use data to create algorithms and predictions – such as Google or Facebook -, and there’s a problem of surveillance capitalism, we are the raw material, the data we produce and our personal databases today’s digital economy.

Therefore, “we need data-driven regulation and cities are on the forefront of this issue,” adds Bria. We are talking about regulating Uber, Airbnb, etc as, for example, Barcelona did. And more cities are talking about regulating big tech and companies that heavily rely on (personal) data.

Eddy Hartog,  Head of Unit Technologies for Smart Communities at the European Commission, makes it clear that the main aim of digital sovereignty “is not insolation, but being the master of your own environment and to be able to act in the interests of EU citizens, especially in crisis times and emergencies.”

According to him, the Data ACT and Data Governance ACT currently being discussed by the EU are concrete steps toward digital sovereignty in Europe and emphasized that municipal and regional cooperations are key to success. Data sovereignty and portability, privacy and security by design, open standards and open APIs, etc will not only help protect citizens’ privacy but also enable cities to handle data in a way that can benefit their own citizens as well.

After all, the value is not in the data itself but in how you can use such data. How cities can use all the data they gather – garbage collection, cameras, mobility, etc – to improve citizen’s lives and to support decisions taken by the city in an informed way, not to mention data collected by private entities, companies, etc that must be regulated and used to promote the betterment of citizen’s lives.

That’s for instance, what Riga is doing, putting forward nationwide digital competency straightening strategies, enrolling also other municipalities that, explains Edgars Klētnieks, Head of Product at the Riga City Digital Agency, sometimes don’t even have a dedicated IT service.

The ever-changing nature of regulation is a challenge. That’s why it’s crucial for the EU not only to set minimum standards so cities can have security, but also be able to share data and knowledge amongst themselves.

In Riga, the city has pilot projects in cooperation with local tech hubs and receiving long-term EU funding to promote initiatives such as implementing low emission zone traffic sensors, smart traffic lights, communicating air quality, gauging energy efficiency via consumption sensors, etc.

Additionally, another topic gained prominence due to the current energy crisis brought about by the Russian war in Ukraine: how can the EU reduce its dependency on Russian gas and how can data be used to help achieve such a goal?

Some of these points will be discussed during Eurocities’ Digital Forum in Madrid, from 5-7 October, in which two sessions will be live-streamed with a focus on sustainability and digital solutions for cities and digital strategies.

Digital Forum Madrid Cover
Digital Forum Madrid Cover

Francesca Bria and Edgars Klētnieks’ comments were given during the online workshop “Digital Sovereignty in Europe” on 28 September, chaired by Dr Mohammad Gharesifard, from Eurocities, and organised by Digital Hesse Smarte Region in partnership with Eurocities, Enterprise Europe Network, Hessen Trade and Invest, House of Digital Transformation and Living in EU.


Raphael Garcia Eurocities Writer