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Cities must embrace data democracy for the public good

In April, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was summoned to Capitol Hill to answer the questions of 44 US senators. The sole witness in a joint senate committee hearing held in front of the world’s media, Zuckerberg was called to account for the alleged harvesting of Facebook users’ data by election consultancy Cambridge Analytica.  

Fielding questions from senators representing millions of Americans, from Rhode Island on the east coast to Washington State in the west, Zuckerberg said Facebook was striving to correct issues with its platform. The election data scandal risked bringing to a screeching halt the meteoric rise of a company that has engineered a paradigm shift in the way that we share, use and value data.  

The affair provided a revealing insight into the intricate relationship between data and power in the information age. With an incessant focus on innovation at all costs, the leading lights of Silicon Valley have fundamentally changed the way that we do things. From finding love to organising a demonstration against an oppressive regime, California’s technology entrepreneurs have ripped up the rulebook and started from scratch.  

Companies like Facebook are leading the charge towards a new era in which we are willing to surrender our data to the technology firms that shape the modern world. But we’ve been accorded little time to make sense of what this will mean for our privacy, our democracy, and our quality of life. Big tech is quick to tell us how their services will make us richer, healthier, and more sociable. Yet it’ s reluctant to set out how surrendering our data risks depriving us of control over our own lives.  

 A 2016 KPMG study revealed that almost six-in-ten global consumers are concerned about the way companies use their data. According to a 2017 poll commissioned by the Information Commissioner’s Office, just 20 per cent of Britons have faith in organisations to store their personal data correctly. Despite massive public unease about the way we share the information that is integral to our daily lives, conglomerates are routinely allowed to extract commercial value from our data.  

It’s high time our data was put to use by European cities for the public good rather than private gain. Embracing a democratic revolution, this means putting data back in the hands of citizens and their elected representatives. Harnessing the power of data to transform public service provision for people who live and work in urban areas, the European smart cities movement is central to this.   

Smart city technologies embrace data to tackle the pressing challenges that keep city leaders awake at night. They enable cities to do more for less, saving time and slashing bills for taxpayers by ensuring public services are more responsive to public demand. Smart lampposts use data to monitor air pollution hotspots, enabling city authorities to make better-targeted air quality policy. Smart energy management systems use data analytics to forecast energy capacity requirements and reduce the threat of blackouts.  


Funded by the EU, 12 Smart Cities and Communities Lighthouse Projects are pioneering innovative ways of creating new data-driven value for citizens. Founded in 2014, the initiatives are at the frontier of a global movement to ensure data is kept under the control of ordinary people and their elected representatives. The Lighthouse Projects are putting city authorities in the driving seat, ensuring it is citizens not corporations that have the final say when it comes to how our data is used.  

By bringing together cities, industry and citizens to demonstrate new ways of using data that can be scaled up and replicated, the Lighthouse Projects are finding answers to the pressing questions that will define our data landscape in the decades ahead.  

They are delving deeper into how citizens can best harness the value of their data. They are diving into unchartered waters by asking the questions that we can no longer afford to duck. How do we address the balance between free services and value in data? Would we be prepared to pay for Google to prevent our data being sold to the highest bidder?  

In London, Sharing Cities is making it easier for citizens to access key data on everything from transport to the environment and community safety. The London Datastore provides access to more than 700 datasets, allowing citizens to make sense of the city they call home. In Cologne, Grow Smarter has introduced an urban traffic app that gives citizens access to real-time data on traffic congestion hotspots. In Lyon, Smarter Together is collecting electricity usage data in a bid to better understand the energy demands of the city economy.  

The curious case of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica makes plain the power of data in shaping our economy. The more we grant citizens power over their data, the more we can begin to harness it to the benefit of wider society. City leaders must embrace this agenda or risk being left behind. Now more than ever it’s clear that delivering the smart cities of the future is non-negotiable as we seek to forge a truly democratic future for data.  

Nathan Pierce is current chair of the Board of Coordinators of the 12 Lighthouse Projects. He is programme director of Sharing Cities, one of 12 Horizon 2020 Smart Cities and Communities and Lighthouse Projects.
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