• smart cities
  • Data Privacy
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • the Internet of Things
  • Policy and Regulation

Cities Take the Initiative in the Battle Over Data Privacy

Eric Woods
May 07, 2019

Smart Cities

The emergence of smart cities is unleashing vast new data streams with huge potential to improve city services. This is also putting cities at the forefront of debates over the ownership and use of data. Data privacy has, for example, been at the heart of the continuing debate over the Sidewalks Labs project in Toronto. Cities are realizing that they need to be as active in shaping this new data environment as they are in planning and managing their physical infrastructure.

National and International Data Privacy Regulations

National and international data privacy regulations, like the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), have an important role to play in easing the acceptance of smart city innovations. But some cities feel they need to do more. US cities, for example, have been enforcing data privacy laws against technology companies and service providers. Cities are also now looking to develop positive models for how data can be used to improve the quality of life in cities, for example:

  • DEcentralised Citizen-Owned Data Ecosystems (DECODE) is an EU-funded project led by the city of Barcelona and involving 14 partner organizations. DECODE aims to develop technology that puts people in control of their personal data and gives them the ability to decide how it is shared. In doing so, the project will explore “how to build a data-centric digital economy where data that is generated and gathered by citizens, the Internet of Things [IoT], and sensor networks is available for broader communal use, with appropriate privacy protections.” Four pilot projects in Amsterdam and Barcelona will be used to demonstrate the feasibility of a new data commons and to encourage debate over the intersection of data privacy, automation, and artificial intelligence (AI).
  • In the UK, the Open Data Institute is working with the Greater London Authority and the Royal Borough of Greenwich on a data trust pilot as part of Smarter London Together. The project will work with data collected as part of the Sharing Cities project, with a focus on how real-time data from IoT devices can be shared safely to create solutions to city challenges.
Global Data Rights

A significant global program to address these issues is also underway. The Cities Coalition for Digital Rights was formed by the cities of Amsterdam, Barcelona, and New York in November 2018 with the support of UN-Habitat, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), and Eurocities. Cities accepting the declaration sign up for as many as five key principles concerning:

  • Universal and equal access to the internet, and digital literacy
  • Privacy, data protection, and security
  • Transparency, accountability, and nondiscrimination of data, content, and algorithms
  • Participatory democracy, diversity, and inclusion
  • Open and ethical digital service standards

Since the launch, 22 additional cities have committed to the declaration, including Chicago, Helsinki, Kansas City, London, Los Angeles, Lyon, Milan, Moscow, Philadelphia, Portland, San Jose, and Vienna. In March 2019, a campaign was launched to get 100 cities in 100 days to join the coalition.

Smart City Data for the Good of All

The relationship between government, citizens, and service providers needs to evolve if the potential of smart cities is to be realized and key challenges are to be addressed. This need will only become more obvious as the use of big data and AI becomes ubiquitous in city management and in the provision of public and private services. Initiatives such as the Cities Coalition for Digital Rights show that cities can help shape the rules and codes of conduct required to create a new data commons managed for the benefit of all.