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Protecting Citizens’ Data Rights

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Cities receive valuable personal information from their citizens every day. So do all the tech giants. Who does best by the people?

Protecting Citizens’ Data Rights

Without recognition of existing citizen movements and the wishes of the people, missions imposed from the top down risk fizzling out.

Credit: Franki Chamaki for Unsplash

In summer 2019, Director of The Bartlett’s Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose (IIPP) Professor Mariana Mazzucato will provide her second report for the European Commission on how to implement and manage missions.

Responses to the original report, which inspired the European Union’s latest €100bn programme of scientific research, cited digitalisation as the most recommended area for intervention, ahead of diseases, wellbeing and energy. For an example of what shape that intervention might take, we take a look at Barcelona, which is fast-emerging as a champion for citizens’ data rights.

Barcelona versus Big Tech:

In the yellow corner, the capital of Catalonia, Spain, and one of the most visited cities in the world. In the blue corner, America’s richest and seemingly ungovernable enterprises.

What’s the beef?

Barcelona has a goal to empower citizens in the digital era without giving away all their confidential information to Google, Facebook, Amazon et al. With a new Mayor, Ada Colau, elected on the strength of her credentials fighting for social justice, Barcelona is gaining a new reputation as a city defending individuals’ rights from commercial exploitation.

Who is taking an interest?

The IIPP’s Professor Mazzucato is preparing her second report for the European Commission, as adviser to Commissioner Carlos Moedas, on how to devise, finance and govern missions to improve citizens’ lives. Barcelona’s approach ticks all the boxes on civic engagement and innovation, and will be recommended as an example to follow.

Is there a direct connection between IIPP and Barcelona?

Francesca Bria, Chief Information Officer for Barcelona, is a Visiting Professor at the IIPP and recently lectured there on individuals’ data sovereignty and how to tame the tech giants.

Protecting Citizens’ Data Rights

Francesca Bria, Chief Information Officer for Barcelona and Visiting Professor at IIPP, presenting at IIPP's 'Rethinking Capitalism' lecture.

Credit: IIPP

What are the tech giants doing wrong?

The doubts, not exclusive to Barcelona City Council or the IIPP, are how these companies accrue data covertly from users’ web searches and online conversations. For a city where these doubts are manifesting themselves, look at Google’s plans for the Waterfront district of Toronto. Plenty of smart functions are planned for citizens there but they will be ubiquitously spied on. The developer’s current defence is that all data will repose with an independent civic trust.

How is Barcelona different?

Barcelona, like any modern city, receives and stores lots of information on residents and visitors. It even offers stacks of data to tech start-ups with which to create innovative services. Unlike Google, however, the Catalan city is transparent about what information it holds – it even publishes the algorithms it uses to organise data. But encryption of that data keeps individuals’ identity private. New apps and online services can thus flourish and create jobs in the tech sector but they serve citizens on whose personal details they rely without exploiting them. Rainer Kattel, Deputy Director of the IIPP, describes this as the “shared economy”.

How will data protection matter in the future shared economy of cities?

The EU wants to develop smart cities. These rely on masses of information, for example, to improve traffic circulation knowing the movement of every vehicle. It is not hard to see how that acquired information, coupled with personal details from the driver of each vehicle via their smartphone, could be commercially valuable – to car insurers, for example. Barcelona and the IIPP put citizens’ needs for greener, more efficient transport first. That necessitates digital surveillance but not exploitation of drivers for their data.

'Governing the digital economy' lecture by IIPP Deputy Director Rainer Kattel.

How does IIPP apply Barcelona’s ethos to mission-oriented public policy?

IIPP likes the way Mayor Colau has used IT to make her administration transparent. Citizens are encouraged to check what the city council is spending money on, including salaries of top officials. There is a page for whistleblowers to report corruption. There is a forum to organise popular campaigns and influence municipal spending. This flow between council and citizens means that when Barcelona has taken bolder steps such as buying more local – mostly solar – energy, the policy is rooted in public support.

The message Mazzucato has for the European Commission is that without recognition of existing citizen movements and the wishes of the people, missions imposed from the top down risk fizzling out. At this moment in history, Europe’s cities and countries need to engage with their people more than ever. Mission-oriented public policy is the antidote to more sinister forms of populism.

The Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose has a mission to change how public value is imagined, practiced and evaluated to tackle societal challenges and achieve economic growth that is more innovation-led, sustainable and inclusive. It is part of The Bartlett, UCL's Faculty of the Environment. Find out more:

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