Using private data for public good

29 June 2023

Throughout each day, we generate a large amount of data, through our smartphones and electronic devices, the various applications we use, such as social media platforms, location and navigation services, financial transactions, holiday booking services or smart meters, and the networks they connect to, either Wi-Fi, cellular, Global Navigation Satellite System, and so on.

Yet, these insights on our habits, movements, preferences, and even financial information, wind up in private hands. Data usually belongs to private entities, such as telecom companies, mobility providers, energy suppliers, or tech companies.

Nevertheless, the Data Act offers new opportunities in this field. The regulation, which was agreed yesterday in trilogue, and is now to be endorsed by the Council of the EU and the Parliament, aims to harmonise rules on fair access and use of data. During the negotiations, cities called for a wider scope for the B2G data sharing. And it seems their voices have been partially heard.

Where is my data?

From climate action to urban planning, improving mobility, or mitigating the energy crisis, European cities can leverage data to implement evidence-based decision making that will lead to a better, more just and sustainable society.

However, until now, much of this information about how citizens interact within a city has remained out of reach for municipalities.

Accessing insights from businesses could be a game changer for local governments. With real-time data from navigation apps, ride-sharing companies or transportation services, cities could better manage traffic management, enhance public transport networks, reduce congestion and air pollution, optimise energy consumption, and improve living conditions for their residents.

Unlocking the power of data

There are already numerous examples of cities collaborating with the private sector, exchanging data to inform decision making processes, improve public services, or foster sustainability in urban environments.

This is what Business- to-Government (B2G) data sharing is all about. B2G is a key asset for cities across Europe to overcome common challenges they experience in relation to mobility, energy, or housing market influenced by short term rentals.

“Traffic and transportation constantly require more data, that is both more precise and real-time. Maintaining mobility infrastructure is massively resource intensive. Scanning all roads and pathways every day is a daunting task for a city,” says Timo Sillander, Technology Director at Forum Virium Helsinki. “At the same time, streets are already filled with sensors constantly moving through the city. These sensors could be harnessed to update infrastructure information.”

What is happening in cities?

Cities are already using data coming from private entities to better understand mobility patterns. For example, Porto uses data from the private sector, such as parking or telecommunications data, which the city buys or accesses through exchanges.

It has been more than fruitful to include in procurement contracts clauses to enforce the sharing of relevant data
— João Bastos, Head of Systems Architecture and Data in Porto Digital

The city now also imposes data sharing in contracts with urban service providers. For instance, soft mobility providers are contractually obliged to provide data to Porto. According to João Bastos, Head of Systems Architecture and Data in Porto Digital, a private non-profit association that works as the Municipality of Porto’s toolbox for innovation and digital transition, “it has been more than fruitful to include in procurement contracts clauses to enforce the sharing of relevant data.”

Energy is another domain where cities need more data often held by private utilities. “With the rampant prices of electricity and the need to foster policies for climate neutrality and energy poverty, electricity data would have been useful if properly shared and exploited,” outlines Daniel Sarasa Funes, Director of the Zaragoza City of Knowledge Foundation.

Cities would benefit enormously from aggregated and anonymised energy data on monthly consumption per building. They could use it to support the energy transition, optimise consumption, develop Energy Communities and reduce energy poverty, or even provide personal advice to citizens.

Another sector where real-time data is particularly useful for cities is short-term rentals, such as Airbnb or Booking. The rise of this phenomenon in the past decade has had detrimental impacts on cities, such as the reduction in housing stock and consequently, the increase in prices, higher noise levels, and other nuisances caused to neighbours.

Pau Balcells, Programme Manager, Barcelona Municipal Data Office, explains that accessing real-time data on short rental demands would be instrumental in reducing concentration, which puts pressure on specific neighbourhoods.

However, US’ Security and Exchange Commission regulations prevent businesses from sharing data that influences their stock price. To overcome this challenge, Amsterdam is exploring the concept of a ‘trusted third party’: a mediating organisation between the city and companies. In this context, the business shares data with the TTP and the city gets access to limited information items defined by exact use cases. This way the data is safe for the businesses, but available the moment it is needed for the cities.

“Our experience shows that the best results come when we are partnering with a company, but we never use data if GDPR can be an issue” explains Ron van der Lans, Strategic Partner Manager at the City of Amsterdam. Their approach is to engage with the private sector on projects that are beneficial for both, company and city. “We share a common goal: like ‘keep our city liveable’ or ‘keep the city accessible’. They cannot refuse to take part in that,” he explains.

How to get there

However, procuring commercial data is often problematic. “The primary reasons are either limited licensing or a high price tag”, says Sillander, “so data may be bought, but it doesn’t often lend itself to be shared further.” In addition, cities face internal challenges related to a lack of appropriate data infrastructures and digital literacy.

In addition, “IoT data falls short, since the true power of B2G data lies in the personal domain”, highlights Sarasa.

“When speaking about B2G, you need to work with trust”, states Van Der Lans. In Amsterdam, they are “in favour of the Data Act, but prefer not to use it”. “It is useful as a potential ‘stick’, but we prefer to cooperate,” he adds.

According to Balcells, though, GDPR is not necessarily a problem when working with data from the private sector. “Aggregation could be an option to overcome GDPR issues, while providing enough granularity for optimal results,” he adds.

Win-win situations

Another challenge is creating incentives for private entities to share their data with public bodies. Enterprises may view their data as a highly valuable asset, since it gives them a competitive edge in the market. They may be reluctant to share it without adequate incentives or assurances of benefits. “There is a need to focus on incentives for both parts and be very clear on objectives to avoid false expectations,” remarks Balcells.

For van der Lans, instead of forcing businesses to share real-time data with the city, “it is best to collaborate on a project together, start small and agile, and then replicate from there.”

Interoperability is one more key issue to tackle. Private entities often use different data formats, systems, and technologies, making it challenging to integrate and analyse data from diverse sources.

The Data Act opens up some opportunities for city governments
— Federica Bordelot, Head of Digital Transformation at Eurocities

The Data Act

The Data Act opens a new chapter in how cities interact with the private sector regarding data. It is a first step towards a comprehensive framework of B2G data sharing. 

For Porto, João Bastos says it is important that “the Data Act helps establish clear governance rules for companies to share data relevant to the management of the city and the welfare of citizens free of charge.”

For Barcelona, Pau Balcells says, “The Data Act should set up a clear playground, stating that in order to guarantee the effectiveness and efficiency of public services, private data held by companies, provided or owned by citizens, are necessary.”

The regulation specifies that public sector bodies, the Commission, the European Central Bank and Union bodies may access and use data held by the private sector, when necessary in exceptional circumstances, particularly in case of a public emergency, such as floods and wildfires, or to fulfil a specific task in the public interest. This last aspect is particularly important,” explains Federica Bordelot, Head of Digital Transformation at Eurocities.  Although it is limited to a number of conditions, it opens up some opportunities for city governments to access, for instance, local transport, energy or waste management industrial datasets which are strategic for governing the city.”


Justine Gangneux Project Coordinator
Lucía Garrido Eurocities Writer