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Urban Governance, Transparency, and Privacy in a Digital Age

Experts from around the world give us their take on the challenges and opportunities for smart cities and digital urbanism.

In a pandemic age, is digital participation really optional anymore? What does it really mean to be a “smart city?” Is health data from wearable monitoring devices properly regulated? These are just some of the questions that were tackled last Thursday in our unique two-panel discussion on digital urbanism and data governance, titled “Living Tomorrow: The Caring City.”

Commentator Yves Daccord, former Director-General of the ICRC and fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center, set the stage with a powerful reflection on the theme of #LivingTomorrow:

“There is no better theme, especially right now in the US and around the world, than living not just tomorrow, but living together tomorrow. I am deeply convinced that cities are an important place where our social contract — our “us” — is really developing.”

Below, you’ll find a few takeaways from our two panels. They are by no means exhaustive but provide a snapshot of the discussion. Want to listen to the whole event? You can watch the full recording here.

#1: When visualized in the right way, data is a powerful form of expression and connection with others.

Sensibilização is the Portuguese translation of the word, “awareness.” But for Barbara Castro, Creative Director and Partner at Ambos&&, it carries much more meaning when discussing data awareness. It is about becoming sentient and sensible.

Castro wants to employ data as a form of expression that promotes connectivity. “We hear a lot about how we can make decisions based on big data and algorithms, and how we can make fast, efficient, and precise decisions. I’m actually interested in how data can make us more present and open to experiencing otherness,” she says.

Castro has worked on a variety of data visualization projects to make the statistics behind social issues in Brazilian cities more transparent and accessible and believes in data as a powerful tool to make cities more connected and caring.

#2: True digital accessibility and transparency are difficult to achieve without government participation.

That’s why Fabro Steibel got involved as a researcher in Brazil for the Open Government Partnership, which aims to make governments across the world more transparent, accountable, accessible to their citizens. Steibel, who is the Executive Director of the Instituto de Tecnologia e Sociedade (ITS Rio), points out that “without adding the component of governance on data, it’s almost impossible to achieve innovation and privacy.” That governance, he adds, is more about process and collaboration than the end result.

But, as Edouard Bugnion, VP for Information Systems at EPFL reminded us, even if municipalities are willing to collaborate on data governance, it may not always be easy. Cities have digitized their systems and data sources, but very often these systems are siloed and have a lot of technical debt: they are constantly playing catch-up when digitizing systems.

#3: Open data isn’t always a good thing, especially when it comes to privacy.

Sometimes there are datasets that should stay private and closed, according to Nabeel Shakeel Ahmed, Senior Program Officer at Open North, a Canadian company that creates websites to promote government transparency and public participation. For Ahmed, publishing data on its own is inadequate. Open data needs to come with equitable access and increased digital literacy across social strata.

Fabro Steibel also points out that more data transparency and public availability can lead to more discrimination and profiling, and that we still don’t understand how freedom of information laws and privacy laws can work together.

This is especially true when working with municipal databases and systems. They are often decades behind in digital developments, so working towards data transparency is not a simple task. Bugnion points out that when municipal data is suddenly made public, it is also easily misinterpreted, whether maliciously or accidentally.

#4: Digital initiatives in cities require community buy-in and trust.

While the technological advancements and digital transformations happening in many cities across the world are bringing positive change, Greta Byrum, Co-Director of Digital Equity Lab, says those same advancements can create a digital divide that only exacerbates existing inequalities. But, she says that leaders in historically disadvantaged communities are working with data and digital initiatives, and “it’s up to us to change the framework and move from educating to knowledge transfer.“

Kelley Schneider, a Senior Consultant at Deloitte points out that in order to be successful in transforming cities and communities into “smart cities,” smart city initiatives need community input and buy-in from the beginning of the design process. “Instead of saying we have this technology, how can we deploy it, we should instead bring people in from the beginning and ask what challenges they are facing, and then mapping technology to that.”

#5: In a pandemic age, participation in digital technologies is not really optional anymore.

And in order to have a normal life, it is almost compulsory, according to Veronica Barassi, Professor in Media and Communications Studies at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland. The pandemic has rapidly changed our relationship with data privacy. “We’ve seen an acceleration in embracing data technologies and surveillance technologies in the public domain…we need to have a public debate on the human rights implications of all these technologies, and the ways in which they are affecting weaker communities.”

#6: Cities don’t always need cutting-edge technology to be “smart.”

When we think about smart cities, we like to imagine autonomous cars, sensors, hi-tech kiosks, and the like. But Dan O’Brien, Associate Professor of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University, reminds us that these expensive technologies are not equitable, and only apply to cities that can afford them.

O’Brien thinks that smart city transformations can instead come from the mundane: naturally-occurring data. He tells us that “we collect data on everything from transit to housing to education to health, the list goes on. Those basic data sets that are some level really boring, are also the basic foundation for understanding the day to day patterns of our society and the pulse of the city.”

About nex20:

For its 20th anniversary, Swissnex in Boston and the Swissnex Network are engaging researchers, entrepreneurs, and visionary leaders to imagine the role of Switzerland on the global stage in 2040.