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May 29, 2019updated 20 Jul 2021 2:09pm

London’s TfL and Toronto’s Google Sidewalk Lab both show that cities need better ways of managing data

By Geoff Mulgan

Cities are now fuelled by data. They depend on it as much as they depend on air or petrol. We see this in our daily lives, whether using Google Maps to get from place to place counting our steps with a Fitbit, or checking out a restaurant review.

But how this data is to be managed and governed is becoming ever more fraught and controversial. There is a continuing reaction against the way in which the Facebook’s and others harvest our data without our knowledge or consent, and Mark Zuckerberg has signalled that even he thinks this model is unlikely to last. But there’s also growing recognition just how much we could benefit from collecting, curating and linking data in new ways.

The transport sector highlights the dilemmas. Ten years ago, London started opening up transport data in ways that allowed hundreds of apps to appear helping us to plan our journeys much more efficiently. Yet when Transport for London (TfL) recently announced that it was using Wi-Fi to track passenger journeys across the underground with the aim of improving planning, many reacted negatively, fearing loss of privacy.

So who should own this kind of data and how should the users of this data be held to account?

An interesting example of what not to do has been happening across the Atlantic in Toronto. In 2017 Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced an exciting partnership with Google’s Sidewalk Labs to create the world’s smartest city on the shores of Lake Ontario, using data to manage transport, energy and just about anything else. Google rushed in full of enthusiasm and clever technological ideas.

But last year brought a mounting backlash. The public turned out to be unconvinced that they would benefit. It was clear there was a massive accountability gap. Google belatedly tried to put this right and last year appointed Ann Cavoukian, a former privacy commissioner of Ontario, as an adviser. Late last year she and others resigned, unconvinced that the plans would stop data being misused. Many believe the project is now doomed.

So how could we get this right? I believe the answer lies in creating new institutions – let’s call them “data trusts” – which can create and organise data on our behalf, maximising the public benefit but also ensuring that our privacy is protected.

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The shape these will take will vary. So, for example, as drones become much more a part of the daily life of cities, doing shopping deliveries or moving medical supplies to a hospital, it’ll be vital to pool data about where they are and we will need some organisation to do that, and to account for the judgements they make. In healthcare there are huge gains to be achieved from linking data about our health and genetic makeup with socioeconomic data and treatment records. But we lack any institutions which are quite trusted to be guardians of this data, and balancing the public interest in mining it with the interests of privacy.

Jobs are another example. Nesta has been developing new tools which look at millions of job advertisements to analyse what skills are being looked for, and make forecast about what jobs are likely to grow and shrink in order to provide more useful guides to everyone from teenagers deciding on their GCSEs or 50 year olds at risk of seeing their job automated.

In one future, this sort of work will be controlled by private companies like LinkedIn. But my guess is we will soon see the need to create public guardians of this data – enabling competitive markets in apps (as has happened with transport data) but ensuring accountability and high technical standards.

All of these are examples of how the Fourth Industrial Revolution is creating new stresses and strains and forcing us to think about new institutions to fill the gaps. Something very similar happened after the first Industrial Revolution. Millions moved into cities like London and Manchester which became pretty unpleasant places to be, full of ill health crime mistrust the misery. Then, in the second half of the 19th century, new institutions were invented to fill the gaps: providing sewers and public health, schools and libraries, insurance and credit, to ensure we got the benefits of the Industrial Revolution but without the costs.

The technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution are hurtling forward. The job of governing them well is only belated being addressed. Cities depend on data as they depend on air. But like air, data can become polluted and toxic. Data trusts will be one of the ways we can help cities to thrive in a data-driven age.

Geoff Mulgan is chief executive of the innovation charity Nesta.

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