29 November 2019
reading time: 4 minutes
“People should have the same sense of security online as they do offline. This includes their ability to use, manage and access data”, says Michael Donaldson, chief technology officer, city of Barcelona. He was speaking at the recent Smart City World Expo, where the management of data was one of very many topics discussed.
It is one, however, that is creeping higher up the agenda of policy makers from all levels of government as the digital transformation gains new ground on the way we live and interact daily.
How much power should private or state entities have over personal data. Can the public benefits be justified and how can technology help support this? What rights do people have?
“Just as with the social market economy, which we in Europe are very proud of, it will probably be necessary for us to find our own path” – these words, spoken by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and captured by the Financial Times highlight a growing unease among Europe’s leaders on how people’s data is being handled by major companies like Google or Amazon, and the lack of an obvious alternative.
People should have the same sense of security online as they do offline
— Michael Donaldson, chief technology officer, city of Barcelona
Early last year the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) legislation, which sought to introduce thresholds on data protection and privacy for individuals, caught headlines around the world – was this Europe going its own way, as Merkel might contend?
“As we develop new technologies and generate new datasets on public life,” comments Mathias De Clercq, mayor of Ghent, “we want to ensure the digital transformation is accessible to and works for all people.”
Clearly, such questions are just as relevant at the local, as well as national, level, but what is the capacity of cities to implement such transformative and wide-ranging legislation?
Bart Rosseau, chief data officer, and Seppe Vansteelant, data protection officer, from the city of Ghent argue thqtm “the main impact [of GDPR] stems from the fact that a lot more thought goes into privacy when starting a smart city project. The GDPR doesn’t block new initiatives, but forms a framework with rules which have to be taken into account when processing personal data. For example: how do we find innovative ways to obtain consent in case someone is tracked via sensors in a museum.”
Indeed, Ghent is one of the cities at the vanguard of the data challenge. “In Ghent,” continues mayor Mathias De Clercq, “our ‘data processing registry’ gives public authorities an updated and accurate overview of the data produced in the city while the open version allows residents to interact with and query the administration on the use of their personal data.”
This understanding, that people should be able to manage and access their personal data, runs through a lot of city level projects.
Cities on the case
There are many examples from cities of how data is being used and managed responsibly and in a way that allows people to benefit:
‘Bristol Is Open’ is a private smart city research and development platform based on the access to three interconnected communications networks around the city. It gives companies of all sizes the chance to come and test new technology to determine the viability of smart city ideas. The city is focusing on the development of smart districts, where a more holistic view can be taken across issues like transport, energy, housing, and the potential use of new technologies and better data.
Eindhoven is working with an electric car sharing firm to gain access to the company’s data on the use of shared cars within the city. From this anonymised data, Eindhoven will learn about the number of vehicles involved, timeframes and the areas of greatest use. This agreement enables Eindhoven to analyse how shared mobility solutions are developing, where electrical charging stations and parking facilities are needed and where mobility innovations are lacking. This allows the city to improve smart mobility hubs to stimulate the use of shared cars.
Rennes’ public data service is an online platform that gathers datasets on local public life to inform and inspire innovation while respecting privacy and democratic values. It provides, for example, real-time traffic status monitoring, details of the city budget and information on energy production in different parts of the city.
Bordeaux is monitoring tourists’ behaviour in its metropolitan area by analysing social media data from, for example, TripAdvisor, Instagram and Flickr, where tourists leave a digital trace through photographs and posts. Once anonymously processed and analysed, this data reveals the area’s attractiveness and enables the development of cultural and nightlife activities tailored to tourist’ interests and needs. This data also allows for the development of public policies and investments in culture and tourism.
A principled commitment
EUROCITIES, the network of major European cities, which is advocating for more action to be taken at EU level, has recently put together a set of 10 data principles based on city examples.
“Data are a valuable asset for the development of our cities. Public-private collaboration is most important to fully utilise its potential” comments John Jorritsma, mayor of Eindhoven, one of the lead cities in this process. “Local governments…are the bridge between different partners in the ecosystem: players and enablers for social innovation.”
Indeed, the network and its cities hope to be able to use these data principles to serve as good practice for other city administrations and companies, and as potential inspiration for future EU policies and legislation.
It may just be that cities have the answer that Merkel and others are seeking.