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Workshop report: Follow us OFF Facebook – decent alternatives for interacting with citizens

The NGI Policy Summit hosted a series of policy-in-practice workshops, and below is a report of the session held by Redecentralize.org.

The NGI Policy Summit hosted a series of policy-in-practice workshops, and below is a report of the session held by Redecentralize.org.

Despite the incessant outcry over social media giants’ disrespect of privacy and unaccountable influence on society, any public sector organisation wanting to reach citizens feels forced to be present on their enormous platforms. But through its presence, an organisation legitimises these platforms’ practices, treats them like public utilities, subjects its content to their opaque filters and ranking, and compels citizens to be on them too — thus further strengthening their dominance. How could we avoid the dilemma of either reaching or respecting citizens?

Redecentralize organised a workshop to address this question. The workshop explored the alternative of decentralised social media, in particular Mastodon, which lets users choose whichever providers and apps they prefer because these can all interoperate via standardised protocols like ActivityPub; the result is a diverse, vendor-neutral, open network (dubbed the Fediverse), analogous to e-mail and the world wide web.

Leading by example in this field is the state ministry of Baden-Württemberg, possibly the first government with an official Mastodon presence. Their head of online communications Jana Höffner told the audience about their motivation and experience. Subsequently, the topic was put in a broader perspective by Marcel Kolaja, Member and Vice-President of the European Parliament (and also on Mastodon). He explained how legislation could require the dominant ‘gatekeeper’ platforms to be interoperable too and emphasised the role of political institutions in ensuring that citizens are not forced to agree to particular terms of service in order to participate in public discussion.

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Workshop report: (Dis)connected future – an immersive simulation

As part of the Summit, Nesta Italia and Impactscool hosted a futures workshop exploring the key design choices for the future internet.

The NGI Policy Summit hosted a series of policy-in-practice workshops, and below is a report of the session held by Nesta Italia and Impactscool, written by Giacomo Mariotti and Cristina Pozzi.

The NGI Policy Summit was a great opportunity for policymakers, innovators and researchers to come together to start laying out a European vision for the future internet and elaborate the policy interventions and technical solutions that can help get us there.

As part of the Summit, Nesta Italia and Impactscool hosted a futures workshop exploring the key design choices for the future internet. It was a participative and thought-provoking session. Here we take a look at how it went.

Our aims

The discussion about the internet of the future is very complex and it touches on many challenges that our societies are facing today. Topics like Data sovereignty, Safety, Privacy, Sustainability, Fairness, just to name a few, as well as the implications of new technologies such as AI and Blockchain, and areas of concern around them, such as Ethics and Accessibility.

In order to define and build the next generation internet, we need to make a series of design choices guided by the European values we want our internet to radiate. However, moving from principles to implementation is really hard. In fact, we face the added complexity coming from the interaction between all these areas and the trade-offs that design choices force us to make.

Our workshop’s goal was to bring to life some of the difficult decisions and trade-offs we need to consider when we design the internet of the future, in order to help us reflect on the implications and interaction of the choices we make today.

How we did it

The workshop was an immersive simulation about the future in which we asked the participants to make some key choices about the design of the future internet and then deep dived into possible future scenarios emerging from these choices. 

The idea is that it is impossible to know exactly what the future holds, but we can explore different models and be open to many different possibilities, which can help us navigate the future and make more responsible and robust choices today.

In practice, we presented the participants with the following 4 challenges in the form of binary dilemmas and asked them to vote for their preferred choice with a poll:

  1. Data privacy: protection of personal data vs data sharing for the greater good
  2. Algorithms: efficiency vs ethics
  3. Systems: centralisation vs decentralisation
  4. Information: content moderation vs absolute freedom

For each of the 16 combinations of binary choices we prepared a short description of a possible future scenario, which considered the interactions between the four design areas and aimed at encouraging reflection and discussion.

Based on the majority votes we then presented the corresponding future scenario and discussed it with the participants, highlighting the interactions between the choices and exploring how things might have panned out had we chosen a different path.

What emerged

Individual-centric Internet

Data privacyProtection of personal data
84%
Data sharing for the greater good
16%
AlgorithmsEfficiency
41%
Ethics
59%
SystemsCentralisation
12%
Decentralisation
88%
InformationContent moderation
41%
Absolute freedom
59%

The table above summarises the choices made by the participants during the workshop, which led to the following scenario.

Individual-centric Internet

Decentralized and distributed points of access to the internet make it easier for individuals to manage their data and the information they are willing to share online. 

Everything that is shared is protected and can be used only following strict ethical principles. People can communicate without relying on big companies that collect data for profit. Information is totally free and everyone can share anything online with no filters.

Not so one-sided

Interesting perspectives emerged when we asked contrarian opinions on the more one-sided questions, which demonstrated how middle-ground and context-aware solutions are required in most cases when dealing with complex topics as those analysed.

We discussed how certain non-privacy-sensitive data can genuinely contribute to the benefit of society, with minimum concern on the side of the individual if they are shared in anonymised form. Two examples that emerged from the discussion were transport management and research.
In discussing the (de)centralisation debate, we discussed how decentralisation could result in a diffusion of responsibility and lack of accountability. “If everyone’s responsible, nobody is responsible”. We mentioned how this risk could be mitigated thanks to tools like Public-Private-People collaboration and data cooperatives, combined with clear institutional responsibility.

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Workshop report: Futurotheque – a trip to the future

Sander Veenhof, Augmented reality artist and Leonieke Verhoog, Program Manager at PublicSpaces took their session attendees on a trip to the future.

The NGI Policy Summit hosted a series of policy-in-practice workshops, and below is a report of the session held by Sander Veenhof and Leonieke Verhoog, creators of Futurotheque.

Sander Veenhof, Augmented reality artist and Leonieke Verhoog, Program Manager at PublicSpaces took their session attendees on a trip to the future. They did this ‘wearing’ the interactive face-filters they created for their speculative fiction and research project the ‘Futurotheque’. The AR effects transformed them into citizens from the years 2021 right up to 2030, wearing the technical equipment we can expect to be wearing during those years. But besides the hardware, the filters foremostly intended to visualise the way we’ll experience the world in the near future. Which is through the HUD (Head Up Display) of our augmented reality wearables. 

As users, we tend to think of the future of AR as more of the same in a hands-free way, but this session aimed to look beyond the well-known use-cases for these devices. Of course, they will provide us with all our information and entertainment needs and they can guide us wherever we are. But will that be our navigation through the physical world, or will these devices try to guide us through life? In what way will cloud intelligence enhance us, making use of the built-in camera that monitors our activities 24/7? What agency do we want to keep? And in what way should citizens be supported with handling these new devices, and the new dilemmas arising from their use? 

These are abstract issues, but the face-filter visualisations applied on Sander and Leonieke helped to visualise the day-to-day impact of these technological developments on us as individuals, and have an interesting discussion with the session participants. After a dazzling peek into the next decade, the conclusion was that there’s a lot to think about when these devices are going to be part of our society. But fortunately, that’s not the case yet. We still have time to think of ways to integrate these devices into our society beforehand, instead of doing that afterwards.

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Workshop report: What your face reveals – the story of HowNormalAmI.eu

At the Next Generation Internet Summit, Dutch media artist Tijmen Schep revealed his latest work - an online interactive documentary called 'How Normal Am I?'.

The NGI Policy Summit hosted a series of policy-in-practice workshops, and below is a report of the session held by Tijmen Schep.

At the Next Generation Internet Summit, Dutch media artist Tijmen Schep revealed his latest work – an online interactive documentary called ‘How Normal Am I?‘. It explains how face recognition technology is increasingly used in the world around us, for example when dating website tinder gives all its users a beauty score to match people who are about equally attractive. Besides just telling us about it, the project also allows people to experience this for themselves. Through your webcam, you will be judged on your beauty, age, gender, body mass index (BMI), and your facial expressions. You’ll even be given a life expectancy score, so you’ll know how long you have left to live.

The project has sparked the imagination – and perhaps a little feeling of dread – in many people, as not even two weeks later the documentary has been ‘watched’ over 100.000 times.

At the Summit, Tijmen offered a unique insight into the ‘making of’ of this project. In his presentation, he talked about the ethical conundrums of building a BMI prediction algorithm that is based on photos from arrest records, and that uses science that has been debunked. The presentation generated a lot of questions and was positively received by those who visited the summit.

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Workshop report: Data-sharing in cities

The NGI Policy Summit hosted a series of policy-in-practice workshops, and below is a report of the session held by the Coalition of Cities for Digital Rights, written by Beatriz Benitez and Malcolm Bain.

The NGI Policy Summit hosted a series of policy-in-practice workshops, and below is a report of the session held by the Coalition of Cities for Digital Rights, written by Beatriz Benitez and Malcolm Bain.

At the Next Generation Internet Policy Summit 2020 organised by Nesta and the City of Amsterdam  on 28th September 2020, Daniel Sarasa (Zaragoza) and Malcolm Bain (Barcelona), on behalf of the Coalition of Cities for Digital Rights, hosted a round table for city and regional stakeholders that explored the application of digital rights in local data-sharing platforms, throughout the stages planning, implementation, and evolution of digital data sharing services.

Data sharing platforms are playing an important role in the cities by integrating data collected throughout or related to the city and its citizens from a wide variety of sources (central administration, associated entities, utilities, private sector) to enable local authorities, businesses and even occasionally the public to access this data produced within the City and use it for limited or unlimited purposes (open data). 

Malcolm introduced the session, highlighting that while Cities are keen to share data and use shared data in city digital services, they are (or should be) also aware of the digital rights issues arising in these projects related to citizens’ privacy, transparency and openness of the data used, accessibility and inclusion of citizens as well as the existence of bias in the data set used and the privatization of the use of city-related data. Luckily, cities are also in the best position to introduce the concept of ‘digital rights by design’ in these projects, and correct issues such as bias, privacy intrusions, fairness, profiling and data misuse.  He briefly show-cased the Coalition work in this area in the Data Sharing Working Group, focusing on the ‘building blocks’ for rights-compliant data sharing projects to extract value from urban big data while respecting residents and visitors’ rights, including policies, processes, infrastructures, and specific actions and technologies.

Daniel highlighted the work of Eurocities on their Citizens Data Principles, which aim is to offer guidance to European local governments on more socially responsible use of data, and recognise, protect and uphold the citizens’ rights on the data they produce. The principles support how to use data-generated knowledge to improve urban life and preserve European values through scientific, civic, economic and democratic progress. Daniel presented one of his own city’s data-sharing project, Periscopio, a framework for sharing information contained in urban data (public and private) in such a way that it allows social agents and citizens to be involved to create social, scientific, economic and democratic value, as well as enabling the creation of better urban services.

Then, the cities of San Antonio, Long Beach, Portland, Toronto, Rennes, Helsinki, Amsterdam and Barcelona each presented some case studies from their cities, highlighting different issues raised by their data-sharing platforms and projects.

  • For the City of San Antonio, USA, Emily B. Royall addressed the issue of data bias and the need to listen to the community under the theme ‘Leveraging Data for Equity’.
  • Johanna Pasilkar of Helsinki shared with us the work of ‘MyData’ operator initiative and how to ease the daily life of the residents by consolidating data collected by the city’s departments and organisations and enabling sharing across several municipalities (data portability).
  • On behalf of the City of Amsterdam, Ron Van der Lans told us about the collaboration with the city by sharing traffic data with navigation companies such as Google, Waze and BeMobile to improve the mobility and quality of life of citizens.
  • Hamish Goodwin from the City of Toronto, Canada explained how they are attempting to integrate digital rights principles into the city digital infrastructure and the municipalities’ decision-making and how to put a policy framework into practice – the results of this are just coming out.
  • From the city of Rennes, Ben Lister introduced us to the RUDI, a local, multipartner, data sharing platform which goes beyond open data and connects users and producers to create new or/and better services.
  • Héctor Domínguez from the city of Portland, USA told us about the importance of ‘Racial Justice’ as a core value to regulating emergent technology, based on the respect for privacy, trusted surveillance and digital inclusion.
  • Ryan Kurtzman on behalf of the City of Longbeach, USA spoke about positive and negative associations of smart cities, and how participatory design of citizens in digital services can leverage the positive aspects: personal convenience, engagement and solving social challenges.
  • To conclude the round, Marc Pérez-Battle from Barcelona presented several data sharing and open data projects led by the City Council.

The City participants highlighted the need for embedding digital rights at design time (privacy, transparency, security, accessibility, etc.), citizen participation, and having the flexibility to adapt and correct any issues that may arise – something that may be more difficult when the technologies are embedded in the city infrastructure, and thus all the more important for correct design. Common themes among the projects include the importance of citizen involvement in projects, the respect for privacy and security, and the need for transparency and avoiding data bias. In addition, listeners to the session in the online chat also raised the issue of data ‘ownership’, and if this is a useful concept or rather misleading – cities are more stewards of data for the public, rather than an owner of data that they gather and use.

The session concluded stating that much work was still to be done, but just by raising Cities’ awareness of digital rights issues in data-sharing projects, we are making a big first step.  The Coalition will shortly be releasing the Data Sharing Concept Note, and associated case studies that were briefly presented during the round table.

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Eight goals for a human-centric internet

As part of the European Commission’s Next Generation Internet initiative, the NGI Forward consortium aims to set out a vision for a more human-centric internet. This blog identifies eight key objectives that can get us there and inform our policy and technology research.

In recent decades, there has been a revolution in the development of internet technologies across a wide range of fields, and all indications are that the technological progress is continuing at a rapid pace. These breakthroughs undoubtedly have a profound impact on society, and while they present significant opportunities, there are also complex dilemmas and challenges emerging around these new technologies.

Currently, the development of the internet technologies of the future is centralised around a few internet giants in near-monopoly positions on the global data market and, without an adequate response, humans risk losing control to data-driven, non-human-centric business models. It is the goal of the Next Generation Internet initiative and NGI Forward to secure progressive development of internet technologies and policy that support the development of a more human-centric evolution of the Internet.

A mixed method approach to identify emerging challenges

Insights into emerging technologies and their corresponding challenges and opportunities can be of great value for European policy-makers in this process. Understanding these emerging challenge areas will allow policy-makers to become involved in shaping internet development early on to embed more human-centric values.

Following some of our previous work to map out future internet challenges, the NGI Forward consortium have identified a new set of eight key topics that we believe will be central in developing a more democratic, inclusive and resilient Next Generation Internet. These topics will help inform the NGI’s policy and technology research agenda going forward.

To identify the most pressing issues facing the internet today – and tomorrow – we employed a mixed method approach that includes computational social science methods and expert workshops. In the first phase, DELab at the University of Warsaw collected qualitative data from technology news articles and academic working papers to identify trending keywords related to the Internet in the broader public and research community respectively. In the second phase, DATALAB from Aarhus University organised an expert workshop with leading stakeholders in the internet research community to help narrow down the areas of focus and verify or adjust the topics. Lastly, DATALAB synthesized the results to select eight key topics for the NGI.

The chosen topics are not tied to any one technology to prevent them falling out of relevance in the coming years. They are broadly interpretable and solution-agnostic so as to avoid us jumping to simplistic conclusions or specific solutions too quickly. The rapid technological development in recent decades demonstrates that focusing on specific tools and technology may render topics obsolete within just a few years, while societal challenges are more likely to remain relevant and allow the EU to focus on a wider range of solutions beyond a predetermined technology.

1. Trustworthy Information Flows

It is widely recognised that trustworthy information flows are essential for healthy democracies, but with social media and the Internet, content can spread much faster and in less moderated ways, challenging traditional information flows. The problem of online mis- and disinformation – often referred to as fake news – has evolved from a journalistic concern to one of the most urgent democratic issues in recent years. Despite major attention from the media, academia and governments, an effective solution is still not available. Coupled with other issues such as governmental censorship and large-scale content moderation by online platforms, information flows are changing rapidly, and further research is needed to explore different solutions that are sustainable and consider often conflicting values.

2. Decentralised Power on the Internet

The Internet was originally designed to be open and decentralised. But the de facto internet of today is controlled by a handful of giant companies with virtual monopoly control, acting as gatekeepers by enforcing policies on their users. However, visions for a more decentralised Internet are gaining traction – an Internet where humans can communicate without relying on big companies that collect data for profit. Some concepts for a decentralised Internet utilize distributed web and blockchain technologies to yield a more open and accessible Internet, while others focus on empowering people to publish and own content on the web outside centralised social media platforms. More research is needed into these solutions, both technical and socio-technical.

3. Personal Data Control

Recent revelations including the Cambridge Analytica scandal have made clear the lack of control we have over our own data, and the sheer amount of data collected online has created a major privacy concern. New approaches to privacy and data rights are needed to realise the societal and environmental potential of big data to connect diverse information and conduct rapid analysis – such as data sovereignty, data portability, and collective data rights. Achieving this will require research into the ways policymakers can fit these new concepts into existing data regulation frameworks in a way that offers individuals better control and authority, and builds public trust and engagement.

4. Sustainable and Climate-friendly Internet

The environmental impact of the Internet is enormous and growing rapidly. Each activity online comes with a small price in terms of carbon emissions and with over half the global population now online, this adds up. According to some estimates, the global carbon footprint of the Internet and the systems supporting it amounts to about 3.7 percent of the total carbon emissions, similar to the amount produced by the airline industry globally. As the Internet expands into new territory, it is estimated that the carbon footprint of the global internet technologies will double by 2025. Indeed, sustainability should be a bigger priority, and further insights are needed into how emissions could be controlled, how awareness of the environmental impact of the Internet can be raised, and how internet technologies can be utilized in the fight against climate change.

5. Safer Online Environments

People increasingly experience the internet as a hostile space. Cyberviolence in many shapes and forms is a growing concern, and it has a significant impact on an increasing number of people, LGBTQ+, ethnic minorities, women and children in particular. It will be vital for a more human-centric Internet to build safe online environments. For this to happen, a range of issues needs to be taken into consideration, including the role of social media providers and the protection of free expression. At the same time, solutions need to be investigated, such as effective moderation or containment procedures, creating useful aid for victims of cyberviolence and enabling law enforcement to take action against offenders.

6. An Inclusive Internet

The Internet offers a potential for inclusiveness in a global and diverse community, but if access is not evenly distributed, the Internet will deepen inequality. Half of the population of the world is still offline, urban areas are better connected than rural, and those that are connected in advanced ways may not be in a position to realise the full potential of the Internet to improve their lives and mitigate against critical issues. Many disabled people also are excluded from using online information and services, so inclusive infrastructures and tools are needed to remove barriers and create an inclusive and accessible Internet for all.

7. Competitive European Ecosystems

Today, the Internet is dominated by two narratives that give little agency to users: the American model, ruled by capitalist market powers with internet giants harvesting massive amounts of personal data to shape human behaviour, and the Chinese model characterised by mass surveillance and government control of the internet. These narratives cannot go unchallenged, and growth and innovation in the European tech industry without acquisitions from the U.S. and China-based companies is needed to support a competing narrative adhering to European values. This requires further research into possible policy and regulatory initiatives that can increase Europe’s competitiveness in the technology sector.

8. Ethical Internet Technology

Recent examples, such as Google’s censored search engine developed for the Chinese market (‘Project Dragonfly’), instances of algorithmic bias in criminal cases, racially targeted ads and “differential” pricing, and the use of Facebook data for voter manipulation, have shown that the Silicon Valley attitude of ‘moving fast and breaking things’ has failed. With the rapid development of new technologies in the Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, further research is needed in order to develop targeted ethical frameworks for the development and implementation of new technologies.

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Data science tools for technology mapping

Technological developments play an important role in shaping virtually all aspects of life, from work and leisure to democracy and social cohesion. As technologies like AI grow in importance, and impact, even small issues can create huge challenges: from algorithmic biases to the collection of personal data, negative externalities can easily reach a critical scale. […]

Technological developments play an important role in shaping virtually all aspects of life, from work and leisure to democracy and social cohesion. As technologies like AI grow in importance, and impact, even small issues can create huge challenges: from algorithmic biases to the collection of personal data, negative externalities can easily reach a critical scale. In such a face changing environment it can be incredibly difficult to stay up to data and informed. Governments and policy-making in particular find it difficult to manage the lag between technological developments and policy or regulatory responses. New approaches and data driven techniques can help. 

To identify important internet related social challenges and emerging technologies, our team have developed various text-mining tools (that you can implement and explore yourselves here). In this blog post, we provide a brief overview of the potential uses of this methodology and examples of the work we’ve done so far as part of the Next Generation Internet (NGI) initiative (more examples can be seen in the Datalab section of the website).

The approach

Our text mining analysis is based on a novel dataset of technology news articles. Using web-scraping tools we have collected more than 213 thousand articles. The sources include 14 major English-language technology websites from the US, EU and Australia. The same approach could be applied to different input text data, we have also been experimenting with academic papers and social media sources. 

We combined three methods: the analysis of term frequencies, co-occurrences and sentiment analysis. 

First, we highlight emerging topics based on the analysis of term frequencies: we identify the terms that have an increasing average frequency over time. Next, we explore the connections between terms, e.g. between emerging social issues and technologies using co-occurrence analysis. The analysis of co-occurrences enables us to find which emerging terms were most often mentioned together in the same article, hence finding most relevant pairs of expressions. In the case of technology news, this is a good way to surface how the technology is being applied, or connections to regulatory issues. In order to track public perception of different issues and identify relevant positive and negative views we also perform sentiment analysis. 

Figures 1. and 2. summarise the most trending technology related terms. These figures provide a high level map of the most important technology news from the previous years.

Figure 1. Umbrella topics and identified keywords: Emerging technologies

Figure 2. Umbrella topics and identified keywords: Relevant social challenges


Case study: AI and ML

Figure 3. presents the terms related to such expressions as “facial recognition” or “AI ethics”. The co-occurrences provide rich details on the social issues related to AI and ML algorithms: while AI can lead to new innovations and be helpful in various recent challenges (e.g. tackling fake news), these algorithms often work in a non-transparent way (“black box”), may be prone to biases, or implemented for questionable purposes (“killer robots”).

Algorithms have been at the centre of recent controversies, such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal, or the implementation of facial recognition at the Berlin Südkreuz station. Another example is project Maven, a cooperation between Pentagon and Google to implement AI algorithms for the identification of people on drone footage. The involvement of Google in the military usage of AI stirred intensive debate, including the protest of Google employees. The backlash in the company led to Google’s resignation from further cooperation with the Department of Defence, e.g. in the JEDI project (Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure). Therefore, the ethical usage of AI is a key point of public debate. The co-occurrences enable us to identify crucial institutions (Pentagon, Google’s Advanced Technology External Advisory Council), persons (academics Jonathan Zittrain and Joanna Bryson) and companies (Byton – Chinese electric car producer, AI start-ups Doxel, Clarifai etc) as well. 

Facial recognition is used as a case study for the sentiment analysis (Figure 4.) The analysis shows the monthly average sentiment of articles on facial recognition on a scale of -1 to 1. At the beginning of the explored time period, the articles on facial recognition were initially rather positive (compound score: 0.22), “voice assistant” and “AI technology” being the most positive connotations), with a significant decline at the end of 2017, possibly due to the increase in events reporting on the questionable usage of the technology. 

On the one hand, this technology can be seen as a convenient tool for tagging photos in the social media or authorising mobile payments in a secure way. However, we observe growing privacy concerns around facial recognition applications in the marketing industry and law enforcement. 

Figure 3. Co-occurrence analysis for AI and ML
Figure 4. Sentiments analysis: facial recognition

Table 1. Co-occurrences with most positive and negative sentiments

Most positiveMost negative
voice assistant border guards
ai technologyautonomous weapons
ai research project maven
edge computing big brother
ai startup racial bias

New interactive book bringing together a collection of essays, interviews, short stories and artworks by more than 30 contributors from 15 different countries and five continents reflecting on the internet’s past and future

Finding ctrl: visions for the future internet

  1. https://www.politico.eu/article/berlin-big-brother-state-surveillance-facial-recognition-technology/
  2. https://www.theverge.com/2019/2/4/18211155/google-microworkers-maven-ai-train-pentagon-pay-salary
  3. https://www.zdnet.com/article/google-heres-why-were-pulling-out-of-pentagons-10bn-jedi-cloud-race/
  4. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/feb/15/how-taylor-swift-showed-us-the-scary-future-of-facial-recognition
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Can Cities Be Guardians of Digital Rights?

Everybody who’s professionally involved in technology in cities and communities agrees that the debate on digital rights has moved beyond the implementation of smart technologies. The European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) turned ‘Privacy’ into a hot topic, and the Cambridge Analytica scandal catapulted the debate on ethical use of data high up the political […]

Everybody who’s professionally involved in technology in cities and communities agrees that the debate on digital rights has moved beyond the implementation of smart technologies. The European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) turned ‘Privacy’ into a hot topic, and the Cambridge Analytica scandal catapulted the debate on ethical use of data high up the political agenda.

As a result of this global politicisation of digital affairs, local councils are increasingly becoming aware of their political power to decide and shape the digital development of their cities. For example, 5G infrastructures are not a matter of ‘neutral smart city efficiency’; city councils across the world – the closest democratic representatives of citizens – have a choice how and which data can be collected and by whom.

Policy making in the Digital Public Space

Approaching local governments as ‘caretakers’ for their citizens, some common approaches between the represented cities emerge, and local governments are taking action. Local governments exist to regulate the use of collective resources and public space. We see that our physical public space is digitising. The question that emerges for cities is: How should local governments make policies for the digital public space?

When physical and digital public space are blending – bridges equipped with sensors, public squares offering free WIFI access –  local governments have a key role to set the terms and conditions for their city to flourish digitally.

It is nearly impossible for citizens to opt-out of digital tracking when using public spaces in cities. Therefore, it is crucial to know what happens with their data after it has been collected, or in which framework commercial re-use, privacy and benefits are managed.

Privacy considerations might slow down the possibilities for digital industries to innovate, but privacy and innovation are not mutually exclusive. A common understanding and implementation of privacy and ethics could level the playing field. Cities are welcoming a strong Europe to develop a fair digital marketplace, based on equality of opportunities for competitors and consumers/citizens.

To achieve a level-playing field, four key actions for local governments to take are:

1.Explaining Digital Rights

Citizens have to understand that they have digital rights. Often, digital rights are not clear, or expressed in language that’s difficult to grasp. Amsterdam and Barcelona took the initiative and have started a cities coalition to define clear digital rights for everyone.

2. Using Procurement to Enforce Digital Rights

Local governments can use their procurement frameworks to enforce data privacy. With their ‘data sovereignty’ programme, Barcelona has already demonstrated the effectiveness of procurement when it comes to guaranteeing data sovereignty. For example, data collected in assignment of the local government in public space will become available to share in a ‘data commons’.

With an annual budget of €2.1 Billion for procurement, cities like Amsterdam can guide the market rather than following it.

3. Regulating digital markets that impact public space

In digital markets, the interaction between consumers, workers and platforms generated new ways to organize, domains like mobility in cities and set new challenges for city governments: What is the role of public transport when people who can afford it are using car services? How can  data and insights collected by platforms become available to policymakers, citizens and interest groups?

In order to guarantee a fair marketplace and equal society, cities need to regulate digital markets when they are impacting public space and the lives of their residents. Collaboration with national and international authorities is needed to create a digital single market. Cities are also looking to counteract the information asymmetry between (local) governments and global digital platforms. This asymmetry influences how local governments can implement and enforce policies.

4. Be Transparent

Citizens are demanding solutions and clarity from their local government. Cities have to be transparent about how they are using data collected in public spaces. There are several ways to achieve transparency. The City of Porto, for example, is providing an application where citizens can see check where IoT devices or cameras are installed and for what purposes, when it was decided to install them or who has approved it. The application also allows citizens to ask questions about the device or report new devices to the municipality.

Following these four actions, it becomes clear that municipalities have to involve citizens to manage concerns, demands and technical possibilities. To define next steps, cities need a deeper understanding of privacy concerns of citizens and the assumptions and expectations of technical partners.

Citizens Demand Clarity About Their Data

There is no such thing as a digital invisibility cloak. But are there alternatives for digital business models based on the collection of personal data?

There are concepts being developed to give more control to citizens, users or visitors over their data. One of them is Solid, a project promoted by Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the World Wide Web. Additionally, several EU-sponsored projects like DECODEhave aimed to create scalable open source solutions that respect the digital rights of citizens.

One of the more tangible efforts is the recently launched the Cities Coalition for Digital Rights. New York, Amsterdam and Barcelona founded the coalition, which is supported, among others by UN Habitat, Open & Agile Smart Cities. More than 50 cities have already joined this alliance to create a framework where policies, best practices and technical solutions can be developed, implemented and shared. The goal is to set a common baseline where the basic securities that we can expect in the street finds its equivalent in the digital public sphere.

Bart Rosseau, Chief Data Officer, City of Ghent, and Tamas Erkelens, Programme Manager Data Innovation, City of Amsterdam, who are co-leading the working group on Digital Rights within Open & Agile Smart Cities (OASC).

This blog was originally published on the Open and Agile Smart city website

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