Barcelona’s chief technology and digital innovation officer believes the protection of personal data is a “fundamental right” for citizens.
Francesca Bria, who is the city’s top expert and adviser on policies related to technology, information and digital strategies, is a leading proponent in Europe of “data sovereignty” — ensuring that citizens, rather than big tech, get to control the way their data and the data collected in public spaces is used.
It’s a battle cry being heard around the world, including here in Canada.
“Here (in Barcelona) citizens are very aware that data protection means their autonomy. Data protection means their collective ability to use data to create public value,” she said in a phone interview from Barcelona.
Given Google sister-firm Sidewalk Labs is set to soon release its master plan for a tech-driven smart city it wants to build on Toronto’s waterfront, the Star decided to reach out to Bria to get a sense of how Barcelona — a city known for cutting-edge approaches to data governance and privacy when it comes to smart-city technology — has dealt with big tech companies and data.
“I think it’s a positive thing that innovation is not frictionless. Innovation is never a process where you just implement new gadgets and new technologies and that’s it. These kinds of projects will affect very deeply the urban lives of people,” she says.
Barcelona is considered one of the leaders in the world when it comes to the use of smart city technologies. For example, the city recently created a data-based irrigation system that uses a host of sensors placed in the ground that provides up-to-the-minute data on temperature, wind speeds, humidity, sunlight and barometric pressure.
Overwatering of plants can be prevented by utilizing this data and the city estimates it can save more than half a million dollars on water use.
Bria was appointed to her position after activist Ada Colau became mayor of Barcelona in 2015. The first female mayor for the city, Colau was elected on a mandate of giving residents in the city a greater voice in how their local government works.
Bria, who has a PhD in innovation and entrepreneurship from Imperial College in London and a masters of science in E-business and Innovation from the University College of London, Birkbeck, is an adviser for the European Commission on Future Internet and Smart Cities policy.
She launched the Decode Project, a European Union-wide initiative intended to give citizens the ability to “reclaim” data sovereignty. Barcelona is included in the project.
“We are not debating the importance of technology in the future. We are absolutely on board with that. We just want to make sure it serves the people,” Bria says.
The Decode project, which began in December 2016 and runs to the end of this year, includes the use of cryptography to control the use of data, so individual citizens can decide what data pertaining to themselves they want to keep private, what data they want to share, with whom and the terms of access to this data.
The data includes personal information related to input that citizens provide on municipal issues such as traffic congestion or garbage collection.
Decode was launched in response to public concerns and frustrations over losing control of their personal information online. Those behind the project note that the ability to “access, control and use personal data” has become a way for big tech companies to drive profits.
Decode is also based on the notion that the vast amount of data generated in the world every day can provide valuable information that can benefit everyone. But in the hands of and controlled by a small number of big tech firms — think Google, Facebook, IBM for example — this valuable resource is typically out of reach to people and organizations that want to use the data to benefit the public, proponents behind Decode say.
Decode also covers “internet of things (IoT)” data coming from city sensors — data pertaining to air quality, noise levels and the data used for the smart irrigation system.
The loss of control over personal data doesn’t only mean privacy and personal autonomy are eroded, but also the security of one’s online identity can be put at risk, Bria and others behind the Decode project say.
This “monopolization” of data leads to economic imbalances and perhaps most importantly “threatens to undermine trust between citizens, public institutions and companies,” a trust that is necessary to maintain stable societies and economies, Decode says on its website.
“That’s how we proceeded because there was a very important question around trust. If citizens don’t trust you when you do this kind of (smart-city) project, then they rebel against it. They see no public value or benefit to it,” Bria says.
Barcelona’s version of the Decode project was launched in a climate where the old model for smart-city technology — technology that proponents say is intended to make urban life more efficient — was being challenged, Bria says.
The smart-city model has been sold to policy-makers as a very top-down, technology-first agenda where primarily big tech vendors “basically preach a model of a highly technological city that would magically solve all our problems — a technological solutionism, let’s say,” Bria says.
“We understood that wasn’t going to work. We wanted a future model of Barcelona — a future city that was not just about technology but solving the big challenges we are facing in the city and putting people — not technology — first,” she adds.
Another measure that is intended to ensure security of data saw the creation of data sovereignty clauses in the public procurement process that kick in whenever an organization or individual wins a contract in Barcelona. Under the new rules, the provider that wins the contract has to give the data back to the city in machine-readable format.
“This data doesn’t stay with the provider — it has to be given back to the city,” Bria says.
For example, British-based telecommunications giant Vodafone initially resisted handing over citizen data in Barcelona, but has now been doing so for over a year.
Decode and the new public procurement rules are separate initiatives but fall under a big strategy called “Data commons Barcelona,” which is aimed at giving back data sovereignty to citizens and approaching data as a form of public infrastructure such as water, energy, roads and the air citizens in Barcelona breathe, Bria explains.
“It’s about using public data to solve real challenges of the city and to take better decisions,” Bria says.
All of the rules are codified in Barcelona’s ethical digital standards, standards that set out the kind of principles and frameworks that protect people’s digital rights, including confidentiality assurances and the ability of an individual to access his or her own data if they need it.
Here in Toronto, Sidewalk Labs has pledged not to control the data collected in public spaces — so-called urban data — stating that “no one has the right to own information” collected from Quayside and that it should be “freely and publicly available.”
The firm has called for the formation of an “independent civic data trust” to control the data indefinitely.
In terms of codified rules around data sovereignty, Toronto has none, but a new digital framework that Councillor Joe Cressy has called for and city council has agreed to establish, is expected to address that question in the near future.
Meanwhile, at the national level, the federal government has put forward a new “digital charter” intended to give Canadians more control over their personal data, including data collected by big transnational tech firms.
Barcelona can teach us a lot.
Donovan Vincent is a housing reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @donovanvincent