The good side to citizen data

11th October 2018

By Anna Lisa Boni, Secretary General, EUROCITIES

It would have been hard to miss the avalanche of emails that entered inboxes earlier this year when the EU’s new privacy rules came into force. Coupled with recent scandals, such as the Cambridge Analytica imbroglio, public awareness has sharpened around the possible misuse of data.

The timing of these two events, though only coincidental of course, seemed to signal a swift regulatory condemnation of a misappropriation of personal data. There is another side to data however. Cities aim to use data in a socially responsible way to improve decision making and enhance the efficiency of public services.

Accessing ‘big data’ and using connected devices allows city administrations to monitor things like traffic flow, noise pollution or carbon emissions. For example, having access to specific datasets collected by automated and connected vehicle operators and digital platforms, more specifically (anonymised) data related to origin/destination travel patterns, occupancy rates and environmental performance, could allow city administrations and transport authorities to better enforce traffic rules and to better design, manage and optimise sustainable local transport networks and services.

There are obvious tensions when it comes to using data, most notably between transparency and privacy. The concept of citizens’ data encompasses both personal and non-personal data, at the point when that data becomes aggregated and anonymised, thus aiming to maintain personal privacy.

The use of technologies such as blockchain could offer a way to allow people to choose how their personal data might be used and retain control of the digital public space. Nonetheless, data can be used in other ways and there can be a potential for harm. That’s why the cities of Barcelona, Ghent, Eindhoven, Edinburgh and Zaragoza have sought to define a common position on the role of cities in using, managing and protecting citizens’ data.

There are many examples from cities of how data is being used and managed responsibly and in a way that allows citizens 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 has been jointly created by Bristol City Council and the University of Bristol and 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–all the while keeping in mind the main aim, which is to allow cities to better support citizens.

CITYkeys, a EUROCITIES project, which brought together existing indicators to measure the impact of different smart city projects and to help them benchmark for success, looked at, among other things, how cities collect data that is subsequently released as open data. One of the examples used came from the city of Tampere where data is anonymised before being stored. Different levels of security also ensure the visibility of operational data in their smart city projects is appropriately restricted.

Zaragoza, which recently hosted the EUROCITIES Knowledge Society Forum, has issued a smart citizen card. This card allows all residents to access more than 20 municipal services and facilities, such as transport, museums or public sports centres. To date more than half the cities’ adult population has applied for a card. The city has also made sure to upgrade the cards so that they collect anonymised data that can then be fed into the city’s innovation ecosystem.

At EUROCITIES our concept of what makes a city ‘smarter’ begins with the citizen. A growing need for quality data in the development of smarter cities comes with challenges to the privacy and protection of personal data. At the same time, citizens must be able to access, use and manage their own data. To do so, they need the appropriate digital skills. As the level of government closest to citizens, cities are collaborating to tackle these challenges and ensure people can trust public authorities with their data.

EUROCITIES 2018 Edinburgh, ‘Creative, competitive, cities–building our future together’, 28-30 November will take place at a critical time for Europe. The event will bring together participants from across Europe to discuss the future focusing on two interconnected strands: citizenship and democracy; and culture–a smart investment for our future.

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