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Cities key to making data a new form of infrastructure, says Nesta

City governments need to take charge of data use and leverage responsible innovation, as data should not be seen as a saleable commodity, but a common good, according to the innovation foundation

Nesta has called for city governments to drive use of data to transform services, saying it should be the “fundamental public infrastructure of the 21st century”. 

A report by the innovation foundation argued that cities must take a responsible approach to the use and collection of data to retain citizens’ trust.

It said cities are becoming increasingly crucial in the personal data economy as city governments use data to transform public services, but added that as smart city programmes become the norm, it’s important to ensure citizens are both aware and given more control of their data.  

“Traditional notions of a smart city put individual privacy at risk. Cities want to be connected and data-driven, but in doing this, many are unwittingly engaging in large-scale surveillance of citizens. People have little say over how their personal data gets collected and used, and there are few options that allow policy-makers to acquire people’s data in a more consent-driven way,” the report said. 

It added that privacy had often been a “low-ranking concern” for both companies and government when engaging in smart city programmes.

“In some instances, conversations are recorded, a person’s movements are tracked in granular detail, and facial recognition is used with static and mobile cameras. This data paints an extraordinarily intimate picture of people, often without them even realising,” the report said, adding that the use of data for “smartness and efficiency” should and could go hand in hand, through increasing transparency and accountability.

Education needed

The Nesta report is part of its work as a partner of the EU Horizon 2020 project Decode, which aims to give people more control of their personal data.  

Tom Symons, co-author of the report and acting head of government innovation research at Nesta, said data should be “the fundamental public infrastructure of the 21st century”, like roads, clean drinking water and streetlights were in the last.

“As a partner on the Decode project, we want city governments to start reconceiving data as a new type of common good. Data has huge potential to deliver significant personal and public benefits, but we need to start planning for this now,” he said. 

“The world is waking up to both the possibility and misuse of data, and we have a responsibility to develop technology that will protect citizens, but also ensure the true public value of data is unlocked”
Tom Symons, Nesta

“The world is waking up to both the possibility and misuse of data, and we have a responsibility to develop technology that will protect citizens, but also ensure the true public value of data is unlocked.” 

The report said that as the nature of privacy in a city environment is changing, with it being almost impossible to walk through a large city without data being collected, public trust is key.

“Public-private partnerships have been at the core of smart cities, yet these deals – including the question of who ‘controls’ the data – are rarely subject to any public oversight or scrutiny,” it said, adding that as more data is collected, and new technologies become available, it also becomes easier to re-identify individuals within anonymous datasets.

Although the perception is that people are generally happy to “hand over their personal data in return for access to useful digital services”, and it’s mostly privacy groups that are concerned, a Nesta survey found that 75% of citizens are concerned about their data being shared on the internet. Generally, the public is also not necessarily aware of how the data is used and shared.  

“Within the context of a broad lack of awareness among citizens, governments have a much more active role to act pre-emptively and as digital safeguards,” Nesta said.

“At a basic level, this requires a role for city governments to educate the public to become as savvy about data as they now are about issues like plastic pollution, air quality or fair trade foods, rather than passively accepting any terms and conditions they are confronted with.”

Ethical use

The report also said that in the way the digital economy currently works, organisations are driven to collect data and use it in ways that “create stark new imbalances of power”, and that it’s up to city governments to leverage more responsible innovation to ensure a balance.

“This also requires a shift in mindset to see data not as a commodity to be sold, but more as a common good,” it said calling on cities to build consensus around clear ethical principles which can be translated into policies.

It also called on city governments to train their own staff in how to assess the benefits and risks of smart technologies, as well as looking outside the councils for expertise and to build partnerships.

Other recommendations included becoming a test bed for new services that give people more privacy and control, and making time and resources available for “genuine public engagement on the use of surveillance technologies”.

As part of the Decode programme, there have been several projects run across the world to promote responsible use of data. In Amsterdam, one of these is a pilot allowing people to access e-government services anonymously, thereby minimising the collection of unnecessary personal data.  

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