A man using digital technology underground; A man using digital technology underground;

Can the smart city be ethical with its data?

A world of increasingly self-aware buildings and transport, receptive to our every preference and wish, seems to promise a bright, sci-fi future. But as city governments and other actors embed all manner of sensors and data-gathering infrastructure in the public realm, new ethical challenges are emerging. 

The recent problems encountered by social media giants are instructive. Where a decade ago, people unquestioningly shared every thought and photo, now there’s more suspicion. The dawning realisation that ‘if you don’t pay for the service, you are the product’ and a series of large-scale privacy breaches are making people wary of who knows what about them. For city governors and politicians, this is a good moment to stop and consider the ethical structures they have in place for their use of public data.

The addition of a data dimension to existing technology is another potential risk. CCTV is well established in many cities and largely accepted. One can imagine city leaders presenting the addition of facial recognition software as a way to promise a reduction in street crime… but without public debate and consent, you might also stoke fears of an eventual police state. 

Meeting the ethical challenge

Technology cannot resolve our ethical quandaries. Public debate is vital to legitimise the ethical use of city data to which they contribute. Although the challenges around the use of data are still evolving, I believe a few key principles can already be defined:

1. Invest in governance. For cities, ethical digital governance will require investing in new skills and leadership, resourcing a team. As it stands, few cities are fully resourced to manage and control the new data gathered from the citizens they serve. Cities need to define a top-level strategy that includes policies on privacy and the ethical use of data. 

2. Make privacy a priority. ‘Privacy by design’ as well as ‘security by design’ should be embedded in all services delivered by city government. The public should have the ability to give explicit and informed consent to data collection in the public realm.

3. Be honest about benefits and risks. When implementing new digital or data-driven services, be clear about the benefits… but also the risks. Eindhoven in the Netherlands deployed a raft of digital tools – WiFi trackers, microphones, cameras – to try to improve public safety in a city district, but the collection of personal data caused pushback from residents and visitors. There’s no trust without honesty about the data collected and used. 

4. Incorporate ethical considerations into commercial partnerships. Cities do need to experiment and work with the private sector, as long as they share data in a fair way that respects ownership, privacy and the wider public good. New models of sharing data between public and private sectors are developing—the City Operating System in Barcelona is one such model, the Alphabet Sidewalk Civic Trust in Toronto is another. Cities will need to evaluate what might work for them in partnership with their partner ecosystems. They’ll also need to evaluate supply chain risks associated with data. Some companies may offer services where their business model relies partly or wholly on capturing citizen data. But as data sets get commoditised, or new regulations are introduced, maybe that service provider will no longer be capable of keeping the service going. And advertising-driven business models also might not be sustainable in the long-term. What happens if a service provider suddenly fails? 

5. Use algorithms responsibly. As data-driven services grow, algorithms will play a larger role in decision making, picking winners and losers in new contexts. But placing this responsibility in mathematical rather than human hands poses new dilemmas. What are the algorithm’s biases? We can already see the pitfalls of these data-driven tools in the world of recruitment, where recruiters have been accused of automating bias, for example, by not rating candidates in a gender-neutral way. City authorities will face similar ethical challenges soon enough.

People crossing the street in Vienna People crossing the street in Vienna
Cities like L.A., Barcelona, London and Helsinki are starting to address issues around public data and trust.

The trust factor

Data-driven services and algorithm-powered decision making will usher in many exciting new possibilities for cities. But without ‘data trust’, advances in services are likely to stir new resentments and reduce faith in political leaders. Cities like L.A., Barcelona, London and Helsinki are starting to address the issue. Faith in political leaders depends on developing these ideas in ways the public understand and can engage with.

The digital revolution will continue. The Internet of Things will grow deeper, more interconnected roots, generating more insights from infrastructure and services. Appealing devices may seduce us into giving up more personal information. The public needs to consider both what it wants and will tolerate. It’s a debate that must start now.