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“People should control their digital identity”: Barcelona’s chief technology officer on the DECODE Project

Barcelona’s chief technology officer on the city’s involvement in the DECODE Project.

Today, citizens have little say in how their data is gathered or used. It’s no secret that large technology companies mediate most of our online and offline activities, collecting huge quantities of personal data, and keeping it under lock and key: Google does this with search and email, Amazon with shopping, Facebook with social networking. In addition to eroding our privacy and autonomy, this monopolisation of data also creates troubling economic inequalities.

Giving citizens the opportunity to proactively use their data to improve their lives and communities should be a hallmark of a fair and just digital society. Yet, too often, citizens are treated as passive producers and consumers of data, effectively disempowering them. 

We believe that people should control what happens to their digital identity, who uses their data and for what purposes. DECODE – DEcentralised Citizens Owned Data Ecosystem – is an experimental project to develop practical tools to protect people’s data and digital sovereignty.

The project is building towards a data-centric digital economy where citizen data, generated by the Internet of Things (IoT) and sensor networks, is available for broader communal use, with appropriate privacy protections. As a result, innovators, startups, NGOs, cooperatives, and local communities will be able to use that data to build apps and services that better respond to individual and community needs.

Today’s digital economy treats data as a commodity to be traded in secondary markets – a development made possible through ubiquitous and permanent surveillance facilitated by big technology firms. A recent study by the London School of Economics for the European Parliament argues that centralising computing, data storage and data-driven service provision in the hands of a few players weakens the innovation ecosystem, favouring the incumbents and erecting new, unsurpassable barriers to entry. In time, it constrains user-driven innovations, particularly those oriented towards social impact without a strong monetary component.

Furthermore, as AI and machine learning continue to shape the future – consider the likely impact of the driverless cars on our cities or precision agriculture on the environment, or deep learning in the healthcare sector – there’s no getting away from the fact that we badly need a democratic means of controlling the platforms and data that will be used.

Fortunately, the current paradigm is not the only solution. We believe that, once the appropriate privacy protections are in place, this abundance of data could benefit all of us, not just big companies.


The solution

So, how do we take advantage of the best that is offered to us by digital technologies while rejecting the worst – whether that be the highly precarious nature of work, or the penchant for rampant property speculation that have become the hallmarks of many digital platforms.

First and foremost, the thorny questions around the ownership, control and management of personal data, preemptively decided by big tech firms on everyone’s behalf, must be addressed. The premise of DECODE is that the data we create on the internet, through mobile phones and other personal devices, has enormous value. This data belongs to us.

Recent news stories build an even stronger case for this narrative to change and for projects like DECODE to be brought to life. Take for example how reports in the Guardian have unveiled the role that personal data played in influencing voters in the Brexit referendum and during political elections. Meanwhile, cyber-attacks, hacks and surveillance scandals are seemingly endless.

DECODE is an experiment in how cities and municipalities – Barcelona and Amsterdam are two key project partners – can help resolve those dilemmas of the digital society that are not yet handled by nation states. DECODE is to make a strong contribution to the ethos of democratic, digital urbanism – underpinned by encrypted and decentralised technologies for data management – that is emerging in many cities across the globe.

One reason why cities have failed to foster local alternatives to dominant internet services such as Uber or Airbnb is because of the lack of access to relevant data. In the cities of Barcelona and Amsterdam, DECODE will pilot local data platforms to change this. The platforms will operate on a different economic logic, promoting solidarity, social cooperation, as well as citizens and workers’ rights.

This logic is embedded in the tools, which combine blockchain technology with attribute-based cryptography. The decision of whether to share data (and on what terms) will be made by citizens taking part in the pilots in an informed and secure way. We also develop a new system of data rights and entitlements to facilitate the ownership and sharing of information.

Barcelona and Amsterdam have a long history of empowering citizens with digital technologies. Earlier this year, Barcelona launched the Barcelona Digital City Roadmap: towards technological sovereignty, which encourages citizens to have an active voice in decisions that affect them, including data ownership. In 2014, a project called D-CENT was piloted in the city; it improved participatory democracy and was used by two influential political groups. Now Barcelona uses a digital democracy platform called Decidim Barcelona to involve citizens in key policy decisions and actions, from urban planning to culture, tourism and mobility.

We believe that only a “New Deal on Data” can help us make the most of our digital technologies, while guaranteeing data sovereignty, data protection and privacy. Thus, a transition to a more inclusive digital economy can only be possible if we succeed in building new distributed infrastructures to share data, create encryption technologies for the people, and experiment with new data ownership regimes.

If you’d like to know more about DECODE and take part in the city pilots, please visit our website decodeproject.eu, follow us on Twitter @decodeproject.

Francesca Bria is DECODE Project Lead and Chief Technology and Digital Innovation Officer at Barcelona City Council.
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