The Europeans harnessing personal data for public purpose — on their own terms


The private sector has been quick to harness the value of personal data, often without much customer consent. A new project is looking at how citizens can regain control over their data and use it for public value.

In the early days the internet held out huge promise as a new frontier for democratic participation and freedom — a decentralised network open to all, a place of endless possibilities.

Yet while it has had all sorts of positive impacts on self-expression and transparency, like many lightly regulated markets the internet has also come to be dominated by a few large companies.

Citizens are increasingly questioning the bargain that fuelled the rise of Google and Facebook — the service is free and the company keeps your data, to use with few restrictions.

It’s become a big business — Facebook’s average revenue per user in the US and Canada was $62 in 2016.

There is little transparency about what companies use this data for, and there are commercial incentives to restrict access to anonymised data sets. These companies have essentially taken a ‘take it or leave it’ approach to personal data — and while individuals can decide not to use Google or Facebook and avoid these problem, this is becoming increasingly difficult as they become more intertwined in everyday life.

As we are fed increasingly targeted advertising — which sometimes borders on the creepy, seemingly operating in a legal grey zone — many users are becoming concerned about the wisdom of a few giant companies holding all manner of data about their lives.

Personal data for public purpose

Europe, with a scepticism for the intentions of what are mostly American companies, has been leading the charge on rethinking users’ rights an online world, such as implementing the right to be forgotten.

But the problem also illustrates the ability of data to show us things we don’t already know. Although we might individually wonder what our internet search history could tell a snoop about who we are, the massive scale of the data held by these providers holds the potential to reveal all manner of interesting insights when analysed in aggregate.

What if the power of linked data could be harnessed for a social purpose?

A new project, called DECODE (DEcentralised Citizen-owned Data Ecosystems), is an experimental project to enable practical alternatives to how we manage our personal data and interact on the internet. With funding from the European Union, it will develop technology that puts people in control of their personal data, giving them the ability to decide how it is shared.

This includes an architecture for controlled and anonymised data sharing, paving the way for the creation of a ‘data commons’. The possibilities for gaining social value out of a data commons are vast: academic studies could help us understand more about ourselves, and more accessible data could help improve city or even national governance. Sensors could help improve our understanding of citizens’ health.

Decode has five key objectives, which are outlined in a report recently published by some of the partner organisations behind the project:

  1. Providing alternatives to using dominant internet platforms, offering a more democratic approach to creating and sharing economic resources.
  2. Effectively using an extended range of data coming from people, sensors, devices and the city to enable collective, bottom up decision-making.
  3. Ensuring that people are in full control of their data and identity, while maintaining privacy and trust in the systems they use.
  4. Creating space for third parties to implement relevant innovative approaches and applications.
  5. Preserving the digital sovereignty of citizens and preventing unauthorised use of their personal data on clouds, social networks and the internet of things.

‘Citizen sensing’ could help cities run more efficiently and answer the needs of citizens better.

It’s already being used in limited ways, such as sending data directly into the management of the city’s physical infrastructure. The Boston StreetBump app is one example — it detects likely potholes from movements detected by people’s smart phones as they drive around the city and sends them directly to the city management team.

In Barcelona, the Making Sense project is helping citizens build their own sensing tools, make sense of their environments and address pressing environmental problems in air, water, soil and sound pollution. In other instances, citizen sensing can be a more passive process. In Jakarta, Twitter is used by citizens to map flooding in real-time on an online map.

Individuals providing transport data has led to creations such as OpenStreetMap which crowdsources data to create free maps and GPS services. Others examples include Geluidsnet, in which citizens living near the Netherlands’ Schiphol airport unhappy about noise pollution started a campaign by setting up a mesh network and installing sound sensors in and around their houses.

Though it’s not quite citizen sensing, Melbourne City Council already uses something similar, with ‘smart bins‘ that let rubbish collectors know when they are full.

Decode will test the technology and social value behind the ideas in four pilots in Amsterdam and Barcelona between 2017 and 2019. They are:

iDigital / BCNow platform pilot. In partnership with Barcelona City Council and the city’s digital democracy platform Decidim.Barcelona, this will allow citizen-generated data to be aggregated and blended from a range of different public sources, including noise levels from individual sensors, healthcare data, and administrative open data. This will be displayed in a dashboard, and will give citizens the option to control the use of that information for specific purposes, including to inform policy proposals. It will also provide anonymous verification capabilities to minimise the sharing of sensitive of personally identifiable data with the city council.

#CitizenSense internet of things pilot. Residents will be given noise sensors that are placed in the neighbourhood. Decode will provide sessions to train and support participants to help them set up and use the sensors to gather and analyse data to influence city-level decisions. The pilot tackles the technical challenges of collating and storing a stream of citizen-sensed data, while also enabling those citizens to control what information is shared.

FairBnb pilot. This responds to sharing economy platforms such as Airbnb which have caused disruption in popular tourist cities such as Amsterdam by pushing up the the price of rents while restricting access to occupancy data about hosts who break local legislation. The pilot involves collaboration with the Amsterdam Municipality and the FairBnB platform — which was started to provide a more sustainable solution for short-let accommodation, reinvesting profits back into local initiatives. Decode will provide statistics and regulatory information to enable the community to govern the platform without compromising participants’ privacy.

Gebiedonline (Neighbourhood Online) pilot. Gebiedonline is a pre-existing co-operative digital platform that enables local people, groups and organisations to view events taking place in their neighbourhood, share news, exchange and borrow products and services, and to meet people. Amsterdam City Council is keen to spread this to other locations across the city and leverage the platform to increase involvement with policy and decision-making. It provides an opportunity for Decode to test a more privacy-preserving local social network, with granular controls so that residents can decide what information they share.

Giving people control over the internet

Decode is testing out some interesting and important ideas.

“From these tools, a fundamental change in how people interact with the internet could occur. We hope this will be a democratising force, giving people a stake in how the internet economy functions,” notes the Nesta report.

“There will be other things required for the shift to occur — regulatory and governmental support, and a shift in public attitudes and economic incentives in particular — but creating scalable digital tools that work for people will be a major factor.”

But they are realistic that it’s still early days yet.

“The path to this change is not straightforward. There are considerable technical, legal, ethical, economic, and practical challenges that DECODE will need to overcome. There are also external factors, such as the pace of technological development and social attitudes, which are beyond DECODE’s control and are hard to predict.

“DECODE is committed to tackling each of these challenges in a bottom-up and citizen-centric way. Our ambition is to build tools that respond to genuine problems experienced by citizens across Europe.”