COLLECTED BY Arthur Bot - NEEDS EDITING
In 2015 Ada Colau, an activist with no experience in government, became mayor of Barcelona. She called for a democratic revolution, and for the last two years city hall, working with civic-minded coders and cryptographers, has been designing the technological tools to make it happen.
Their efforts have centred on two things. The first is opening up governance through participatory processes and greater transparency. And the second is redefining the smart city to ensure that it serves its citizens, rather than the other way around.
The group started by creating a digital participatory platform, Decidim [www.decidim.barcelona] (â€œWe Decideâ€�, in Catalan). Now the public can participate directly in government as they would on social media, by suggesting ideas, debating them, and voting with their thumbs. Decidim taps into the potential of social networks: the information spreading on Twitter, or the relationships on Facebook. All of these apply to politics â€” and Decidim seeks to channel them, while guaranteeing personal privacy and public transparency in a way these platforms donâ€™t.
â€œWe are experimenting with a hybrid of online and offline participatory democracy,â€� says Francesca Bria, Barcelonaâ€™s Chief Technology and Digital Innovation Officer. â€œWe used Decidim to create the government agenda â€” over 70 per cent of the proposals come directly from citizens. Over 40,000 citizens proposed these policies. And many more citizens were engaged in offline collective assemblies and consultations.â€�
Those proposals highlighted what Barcelonaâ€™s citizens care about â€” and thus what this government believes should be its focus. Affordable housing, energy transition, air quality and public space topped the list. Now they have their orders, city hall is building the tools to address them.
Colauâ€™s party, Barcelona en ComÃº [wikipedia.org], paints this bottom-up democracy as a neat inversion of how the city used to be run: top-down, and technology first, rather than people first. That may be a little black and white, but whatâ€™s certainly true is that when Colau came to power she inherited one of the worldâ€™s premier smart cities [technologyreview.com]: the host of the annual Smart City Expo and with dozens of sensor networks that drew data on transport, energy usage, noise levels, irrigation â€” all kinds of things. As citizens lived their lives, data was continuously harvested and funnelled into city hall and private sector partners where it was analysed for insight into how the city could be run more efficiently â€” or used to develop services and products for sale.
Now, that data infrastructure is being repurposed. â€œWe are reversing the smart city paradigm,â€� says Bria. â€œInstead of starting from technology and extracting all the data we can before thinking about how to use it, we started aligning the tech agenda with the agenda of the city.â€�
Controlling these data flows is important for two reasons. For one, Barcelona en ComÃº believe that data produced by the citizen belongs to the citizen. So the old deals between city hall and its private sector partners were breaching citizensâ€™ rights. And the other reason is that when centralised governments and tech companies hoard data it is both a security risk and a great waste of potential. In the right hands, this kind of data could do more for the public good.
Now is the right time to be asking these questions. The smart city is a young concept, but it is exploding. â€œIn cities, more than 90 per cent of the data we use today didnâ€™t exist three years ago,â€� says Bria. â€œAnd this is just the beginning: now with 5G, with the internet of things, with artificial intelligence â€” this is the very beginning of a big disruption, what the industry call 4.0. We want to move from a model of surveillance capitalism, where data is opaque and not transparent, to a model where citizens themselves can own the data.â€�
This is more than rhetoric â€” Barcelona is taking steps to make it a reality.
The low-hanging fruit was procurement: it now bakes these considerations into its contracts with tech companies. â€œWe are introducing clauses into contracts, like data sovereignty and public ownership of data,â€� says Bria. â€œFor example, now we have a big contract with Vodafone, and every month Vodafone has to give machine readable data to city hall. Before, that didnâ€™t happen. They just took all the data and used it for their own benefit.â€�
But city hall is going further, creating technological tools that mean citizens themselves can control the data they produce in the city and choose precisely who they share it with. This is Project DECODE [decodeproject.eu] (DEcentralised Citizen-owned Data Ecosystems). DECODE aims to develop and test an open source, distributed and privacy-aware technology architecture [decodeproject.eu] for decentralised data governance and identity management. It will effectively invert the current situation where people know little about the operators of the services they are registered with, while the services know everything about them. Instead, â€œcitizens can decide what kind of data they want to keep private, what data they want to share, with whom, on what basis, and to do what,â€� says Bria. â€œThis is a new social pact â€” a new deal on data.â€�
Itâ€™s a technical challenge, and one they are still working on. The tools are being put to the test in two pilots in Barcelona. The first focuses on the internet of things. City hall is giving residents sensors to place in their neighbourhoods. These sensors are directly integrated into the cityâ€™s sensor network, Sentilo [sentilo.io], and gather data on air quality and noise pollution to influence city-level decisions. This pilot addresses the technical challenge of collating and storing a stream of citizen-sourced data, while giving those citizens complete control over what information is shared. The idea is that citizens could go out their way to collect useful data to improve public services â€” a very modern form of volunteering.
The second pilot relates to Decidim. When people use it, they see a dashboard of their data, aggregated and blended from a range of sources, from sensor noise levels, to healthcare data and administrative open data. From that dashboard, they can control the use of that information for specific purposes â€” such as informing policy proposals. Ultimately, they envisage citizens managing their data flows through an app, with a â€œDECODE wallet that manages peopleâ€™s decryption keys, with an interface that lets you select that you want to give your transport data to the city, because you know that they can improve public transport with itâ€”but you donâ€™t want to give that kind of private data to an insurance company or an advertiser,â€� Bria explains.
The pilots will run into 2019, before potentially scaling citywide. Bria is convinced that the city is the right level of government for this experimentation. â€œThere is a crisis of trust. Governments need to reshape their relationships with citizens, and cities are closer to the citizens. Cities also run data-intensive, algorithmic processes: transport, public housing, healthcare, education. This is the level at which a lot of services are run, and so cities can experiment with alternatives. Itâ€™s the same reason why there was the smart city boom â€” cities have this capacity.â€�
Barcelona is not alone in this. DECODE is an EU-funded project and sits neatly alongside the incoming General Data Protection Regulation [wired.co.uk], which will update regulation for internet companies. Together, theyâ€™re a kind of one-two for the data-driven internet economy. Barcelona also leads a network of rebel cities, â€œFearless Citiesâ€� [fearlesscities.com], that is adopting its tools and practices. They hosted the first conference last year, bringing together more than 180 cities from 40 countries and five continents. They are watching as Barcelona leads the way with its experiments in open democracy and data protection. Everything Barcelona has developed is open source, and all the code is posted on Github [github.com]. They want these ideas to spread.
â€œI think in the technological world itâ€™s very important to put forward a narrative thatâ€™s different to the surveillance capitalism from Silicon Valley, and the dystopian Chinese model, with its Social Credit System that uses citizen data to give them a rating that then gives them access to certain services,â€� says Bria. â€œWe want to lead Europe to put forward an alternative model.â€�