SOCIETY | Oct 30, 2018

The datum, a common good?

The principle of city data commons and the European experiences that consider access to data a social right

“Access to data, as well as their control, has become a strategic resource for cities”.

This is how the book “Rethinking the Smart City” by Francesca Bria and Evgenij Morozov frames the value of data and their enormous economic potential in the smart city context.

We talked about data as enabling infrastructures for smart cities some time ago, on the occasion of the presentation of the Smart Cities & Utilities Report study which likened the information infrastructures of smart cities to the roads, bridges and power lines of “traditional” cities. Once the growing strategic nature of the datum has been defined, the limit of digital ecosystems remains which, in the context of IoT, are very fragmented and with a multitude of non-interoperable private operator solutions. Having collections of information gathered from different devices on often proprietary platforms that do not communicate with each other, due to failure to adopt standards, means having to deal with vertical “silos”, which are not only of little use for the development of data governance but also difficult to control by the user.

Is the datum a common good?

Bria and Morozov’s book goes back several times to the question, reiterating the concept of “digital sovereignty”, or the opportunity that Public Administrations have for putting people at the center, guaranteeing them control over their personal information and the right to access data as a public good, of everyone.

“Giving people ownership of their personal data” are the opening words of the DECODE project, funded by the EU and coordinated by Francesca Bria, which involves the cities of Amsterdam and Barcelona and aims to develop practical tools for protecting people’s data. The role of cities will increasingly be to identify new economic, legal and governance strategies as well as open standards that allow the construction of accessible information infrastructures by citizens, local businesses, NGOs, cooperatives and local communities which, by re-using information, would have the opportunity to build new digital services.

What are the lines of action useful for regaining control of digital strategies?

A list of useful indications is that which, based on European experiences activated in recent years, is reported in Rethinking the Smart City and which starts with the need for the PA to take back public management of critical infrastructures, introducing clauses related to free software, open data formats and agile development of digital services. Beyond this, the need to control digital platforms, implementing public alternatives on a city scale and developing cooperative models of service provision, is highlighted. These are actions that are possible only by promoting participatory democracy and ensuring maximum transparency of action.

Examples of European projects that espouse the theory of the right of access to data as a social right

DECODE is one of the best known. Funded with 5 million euros from the EU, it uses Blockchain technology to allow citizens to decide which data to keep private and which to share, establishing transparent and clear rules of access, use and reuse. It is currently being tested in Barcelona for a participatory democracy project which protects citizens from manipulation of data provided for political participation through the platform, ​​and in a pilot project that sees the installation of low-cost sensors in the homes of citizens that collect data on air quality and noise pollution.

MIDATA, an experimental project that allows citizens to collect their health and personal data in a file that each one can decide to share with other people (for example, with a doctor for a consultation), maintaining full control over the information and contributing, if desired, to research.

DATACITES, a program launched in France in 2016 that considers urban data as a common good, bringing the various stakeholders into contact, with the aim of promoting alternative models for data-based mobility, energy and waste management services.

“The protection of personal data,” writes Francesca Bria, “must also be conceived as an independent fundamental right and separate from the conventional right to privacy, as well as an essential component of the contemporary concept of freedom”.

The datum, therefore, is a common good, of great value, and should be treated as such.

Sonia Montegiove